Gay Marriage Battle Heats Up In Nation's Capital

Earlier this year, the Washington, D.C., City Council passed a measure that would allow the nation's capital to recognize same-sex marriages performed outside of the city. Supporters now hope to see the council pass legislation that would allow same-sex couples to marry inside the district. But opponents vow a pitched fight.

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This past week, New Hampshire became the sixth state to make same-sex marriage legal. Two other states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage ceremonies performed elsewhere.

In the nation's capital, advocates now hope to see the city council pass legislation that would allow same-sex couples to marry inside the district, but opponents vow a pitched fight.

NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES: Before the council voted to recognize same-sex marriages performed outside of the district, a coalition of opponents rallied in Washington, D.C.'s Freedom Plaza. One of the district's best-known politicians, Councilman and former Mayor Marion Barry led the crowd in a chant.

Councilman MARION BARRY (Democrat, Washington, D.C.): (Chanting) Say no to same-sex marriage in D.C. Say no to same-sex marriage in D.C.

KEYES: Barry was the single dissenting vote in the council, though he acknowledges in a statement that he's previously been in favor of what gay-marriage supporters call marriage equality. Barry appeared at a rally organized partly by Hope Christian Church Bishop Harry Jackson, who's part of a mostly African-American group of clergy opposing same-sex marriage.

The issues of homosexuality itself and gay marriage have been flashed points in the African-American community for years. Jackson sees the issue as a major problem for the future, particularly in communities of color.

Bishop HARRY JACKSON (Senior Pastor, Hope Christian Church): I don't want to see the total disintegration of all families, but especially black families in the District of Columbia.

KEYES: Openly gay city councilman David Catania doesn't see this as a race issue, and he thinks the city's voters are for the bill.

Councilman DAVID CATANIA (Independent, Washington, D.C.): I believe without question that a majority of the residents in the city support marriage equality and that while there is still some work to do that this will not be what many have described as some apocalyptic, you know, clash of civilization.

KEYES: But it is an apocalyptic clash of agendas. Jeffrey Richardson, president of D.C.'s Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, says the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender group is simply trying to jump-start a citywide conversation and educate people.

Mr. JEFFREY RICHARDSON (President, Gertrude Stein Democratic Club): There's no gay agenda. You know, the agenda really is equality and strengthening families, and it's not redefining family, defining marriage because the reality is that these families exist.

KEYES: But opponents worry about the effect on children and families if such ceremonies are recognized or performed in the district. Johnson Memorial Baptist Church Reverend Henry Gaston, part of one of the African-American clergy groups opposing gay marriage, worries that children in his community and others will be influenced into a homosexual lifestyle.

Reverend HENRY GASTON (Johnson Memorial Baptist Church): Even though a lot of times they may say it doesn't, but it does because it's a gay lifestyle. It's a happy thing.

KEYES: But co-pastors Dennis and Christine Wiley at Covenant Baptist have performed same-sex unions at their church in the city's southwest side. They rallied last week, along with more than 100 African-American clergy, in support of gay marriage. Dennis Wiley thinks children should not be taught what he calls bigotry.

Pastor DENNIS WILEY (Covenant Baptist Church): We believe it's a much more healthy environment for children to be taught the truth, that everybody's not alike. People are different.

KEYES: Right now, the law passed by the council recognizing same-sex marriage performed elsewhere is subject to congressional review. Also a coalition of ministers led by Jackson is seeking a citywide referendum to block that bill.

A hearing on the referendum is set for June 10th. If Congress takes no action and opponents fail to get enough signatures to put it on the ballot, it will become law in July. Catania says if it does, he will then introduce legislation allowing gay marriage to be performed in the district.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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