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Supreme Court refuses to stop D.C. marriage equality
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Supreme Court refuses to stop D.C. marriage equality

Licenses now being issued, marriages start March 9

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

The U.S. Supreme Court announced late on March 2 that it would not prevent the new Washington, D.C. marriage equality law from going into effect, and D.C. authorities began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on March 3.

By noon on March 3, more than 100 couples had applied for licenses. A spokesperson for the D.C. Marriage Bureau told reporters they normally process 10 to 12 applications a day.

Couples who obtained licenses on March 3 may marry on Tuesday, March 9.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington DC - a vocal opponent of the new marriage law - announced that its Catholic Charities would no longer provide spousal benefits to any employees so that it would not have to provide benefits to same-sex spouses.

The Supreme Court's ruling came in the form of a brief three-page decision by Chief Justice John Roberts. Roberts rejected a last-minute appeal by Bishop Harry Jackson and other opponents of marriage quality to stay - in other words, postpone - implementation of the D.C. law passed December 1, 2009.

"Without addressing the merits of petitioners' underlying claim, however, I conclude that a stay is not warranted," Roberts wrote.

Jackson wants to put the new marriage law up for a popular vote, but he has been repeatedly turned down by the D.C. City Council. He then sued, claiming the council had overstepped its authority when it passed the Initiative, Referendum and Recall Procedures Act (IPA), which the council cited in denying his bid for a referendum.

The case is now before the D.C. Court of Appeals, and Jackson had asked the Supreme Court to prevent any same-sex marriages until the case could be decided.

In his decision, Roberts agreed with the D.C. City Council's attorney that "it has been the practice of the [Supreme] Court to defer to the courts of the District of Columbia on matters of exclusively local concern."

Roberts also noted that a "joint resolution of disapproval by Congress would prevent the Act from going into effect, but Congress has chosen not to act."

The District of Columbia is locally self-governing under congressional administration. Congress has a 30-day review period in which it may overrule D.C. city laws. In this case, it did not do so.

Since the Supreme Court declined to intervene, D.C. officials went on with the process of issuing marriage licenses on schedule.

Marriage Bureau spokesperson Leah Gurowitz described the atmosphere on Wednesday as "festive."

"As each couple walks out of the Marriage Bureau - and there's a long line - everybody claps and cheers," she said. "People have been very festive."

"Love has won out over fear," said Rev. Dennis Wiley, co-pastor at Covenant Baptist Church and co-chair of DC Clergy United for Marriage Equality. "Equality has won out over prejudice. Faith has won out over despair."

Wiley's sentiments were echoed by national LGBT organizers.

"This is a profoundly moving moment for many D.C. same-sex couples and their families," NGLTF Executive Director Rea Carey said. "To finally be able to share and celebrate one's love and commitment both publicly and legally is a lifelong dream for many."

HRC President Joe Solmonese said, "Today represents a hard-fought victory for D.C. residents and a poignant reminder - here in the home of our federal government and most cherished national monuments - of the historic progress being made toward ensuring equality for all across the nation."

D.C.'s Roman Catholic Archdiocese took a much dimmer view of the new law however. The city's Archbishop had previously threatened to discontinue all his church's social service charities in D.C. if it passed.

While he backed down from that position, Catholic Charities did suspend its foster care placements so it would not be required to place foster children with same-sex couples.

Catholic Charities also announced on March 1 that it would no longer offer spousal benefits to its employees so it would not have to give benefits to same-sex spouses.

According to the Washington Post, Catholic Charities CEO Edward Orzechowski wrote in a letter to employees:

"We sincerely regret that we have to make this change, but it is necessary to allow Catholic Charities to continue to provide essential services to the clients we serve in partnership with the District of Columbia while remaining consistent with the tenets of our religious faith."

While D.C.'s new marriage law specifically exempts churches from performing same-sex weddings if they are contrary to their dogmas, D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Lee Satterfield, who oversees the Marriage Bureau, said that city officials may not refuse to marry same-sex couples.

"You know the law, as I understand it in the District of Columbia, does not allow that when it comes to employees of the court," he said. "It does so for clergy and others. It allows them to decline. It doesn't allow for our folk to do so.

"While I don't discuss personnel matters, what I will say is this: We expect to have anyone doing and officiating weddings to be officiating all weddings."

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