The city council in the nation’s capital voted Tuesday to recognize same-sex marriages from states that approve them, a step that could propel the emotional issue into Congress and draw Democrats into a culture-wars battle with each other.
Former Washington Mayor Marion Barry cast the lone council vote against recognizing same-sex marriages. He called it an “agonizing and difficult decision” that he made after praying and consulting with his constituents and the religious community.
President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders responded to the 12-1 vote by the District of Columbia Council with near silence — hoping to avoid aggravating Democratic factions already at odds over that issue and more.
Republicans, usually willing to exploit differences between Democrats, also barely reacted to the council’s gay-marriage decision. GOP leaders and their aides, asked whether anyone will try to use the decision as a wedge issue, said they were preoccupied by matters such as the economic downturn and swine flu.
But they have time.
The city council vote is considered the first step toward eventually allowing gay marriages to be performed in Washington. Congress, which has final say over the city’s laws, has 30 days to review the bill, assuming Democratic Mayor Adrian Fenty, a supporter, signs it.
If Congress takes no action, the bill will become law automatically.
The White House declined to comment on the council’s vote, repeating Obama’s general support for civil unions and belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said through a spokesman that Congress should not interfere in the D.C. government decision.
Pelosi already has one vexing D.C. issue on her plate: giving its residents a voting seat in the House. The U.S. Senate has voted to do that, but only as part of a measure abolishing most of the city’s gun control statutes. Pelosi has been reluctant to bring the district voter rights issue to a showdown vote between gun control advocates in her party and moderates concerned by the political power of the National Rifle Association.
Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who is gay, said he expects congressional opponents of gay marriage to rally to repeal the city’s decision but doubts they’ll get very far.
“For this to be overturned, it’d have to pass both houses and be signed by the president, and that’s highly unlikely,” Frank said.
Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Iowa allow gay marriage and lawmakers in several other states are considering whether to do the same. The Maine House approved a same-sex marriage bill Tuesday and sent it back to the state Senate, where it is expected to be taken up Wednesday.
New York recognizes gay marriages performed in other states.
Gay-marriage supporters greeted the vote with applause, but they were outnumbered at city hall by outraged opponents, including many black ministers.
The majority-black district is overwhelmingly Democratic, but public support for gay marriage is unclear. Exit polls in California indicated about seven in 10 black voters there weighed in against gay marriage in a November vote.
The Rev. Anthony Evans, a pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Washington, said he would work to have the measure killed in Congress — and to unseat every D.C. Council member who voted for it.
“They just kissed their political careers goodbye,” he said.
Gay marriage supporters gathered outside the council hearing room included Ed Grandis, a lawyer who lives in the city with his husband, J.D. Campos. The pair married in California last year during the time same-sex marriage was legal there, and they hope to have their marriage recognized in D.C.
“We don’t have any interest in making their religious institution recognize our marriage or our relationship,” Grandis said. Instead, Grandis said, it’s about the government recognizing the couple’s civil rights.
The district already recognizes domestic partnerships, but gay marriage supporters say that’s not enough.
“It’s an equality issue,” said Sara Mindel, who has been with her partner for nine years and has a 10-month-old son. “In my mind, marriage, although it’s a wonderful religious ceremony, ultimately gives you so many important states’ rights and legal rights.”