WASHINGTON-The Council of the District of Columbia is moving forward with a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the district, and while Congress must review the new law, opponents in that body know that they can't do much to stop it. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the ranking Republican on the House subcommittee that oversees the district, said opponents to the measure are "impotent."
The measure will easily pass the council-10 of its 13 members introduced the bill. Then, as happens with all of the district's laws, Congress has a month to review the bill before it's officially on the books. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said in response to the council's actions that Congress will not intervene in the district's affairs, and indeed, it hasn't blocked a council bill since 1991. The council's action is also strategically timed because Congress is consumed with the healthcare debate.
While opponents of same-sex marriage locally and in Congress raised a hue and cry this summer as the council began recognizing same-sex marriage from other states, hardly a press conference was held this time on the matter. During that debate they found their coalition had eroded significantly; many church leaders who support traditional marriage had moved out of the city and young supporters of gay marriage had moved in, while family-values conservatives in Congress are a tiny minority and hold little sway. (See "Gentrification, gay marriage, and the gospel," Aug. 1, 2009.)
Local church leaders, led by Bishop Harry Jackson, are still campaigning to put the issue to a vote on a ballot initiative. Jackson told me back in the initial debate, "If we had had this battle five years ago, we would be in a hands-down winning situation."
"I know the odds are stacked against us," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, adding that lawmakers have all the more reason to take a moral stand. Jordan introduced a bill earlier this year with conservative Democrat Dan Boren that defines marriage in the district as between a man and a woman. Other conservative lawmakers have sponsored a disapproval resolution that would block the council, but that measure is more symbolic than plausibly passable. "We need to look at every possible avenue we can," Jordan said.
While gay marriage may be legalized soon in Washington, there's no guarantee that it will last long. If Republicans gain more power in Congress, they could kneecap the law in a variety of ways, like prohibiting the district from spending any money on same-sex marriages. So for now, they seem to be standing pat, not wanting to burn through political capital in a debate they can't win.
Conservatives' reluctance to leap into this fray in D.C. also highlights a larger debate within the Republican Party: Should conservative values issues like gay marriage and abortion define candidates or should the focus be on issues like fiscal conservatism and limited government? And some traditional marriage advocates are resigned that government can only influence culture so much, so rebuilding support for traditional marriage may have to happen outside the law-making halls of Washington.
This year Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Iowa have legalized gay marriage. The D.C. Council will hold a hearing on the bill Oct. 26, and it could become law by December.