D.C. vote puts gay marriage before Congress

Associated Press / April 9, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The next battleground over gay marriage could be the US Capitol.

A preliminary vote by the District of Columbia's city council to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere puts the issue on a path to Congress, which has final say over D.C.'s laws. That could force lawmakers to take up the politically dicey debate after years of letting it play out in the states.

"Let's be clear, this is a new era," gay D.C. council member David Catania said yesterday, expressing optimism that the city's law would clear Congress after a final council vote in May.

The council's unanimous vote Tuesday came the same day Vermont became the fourth state to legalize gay marriage and the first to do so with a legislature's vote.

Court rulings led to same-sex marriages in the three other states where it's legal: Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Iowa.

Like the measure approved in D.C., New York also recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere but hasn't issued its own marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples.

The situation in D.C. is unique, though. After the legislation receives final approval from the council, which is supposed to come next month, the bill is then subject to a 30-day congressional review.

That review could be the new Congress' first opportunity to signal its appetite for re-examining the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages and allows states to do the same.

Since that federal law was passed in 1996, the debate has primarily played out in individual states.

Vermont became the first state to legalize civil unions - in 1999 - and Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriages, which began taking place in 2004.

Advocates see Washington holding symbolic importance in the debate, but some emphasized that there isn't a dominant battleground in the quest for marriage equality.

"The district is equivalent to a small state, and the only difference is Congress's ability to interfere with local decisions," said David Smith, vice president of the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign.

"We would treat it as any other state and move to defend the decision of the Legislature or the courts."