D.C. council votes to recognize gay marriage

The move by the District may provoke conservatives to try to overturn the law, using the power Congress claims to meddle in local affairs in the capital.

Published May 6, 2009 4:07PM (EDT)

The latest threat to all things good and holy -- if opponents of same-sex marriage can be believed -- is right here in the nation's capital. The D.C. Council approved, by a 12-1 vote Tuesday night, a bill that would grant recognition in Washington to gay and lesbian marriages performed in other states.

The bill, which Mayor Adrian Fenty is expected to sign, wouldn't allow gay marriages to be performed in D.C., but it would mean the city would treat gay and lesbian couples who wed in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and Iowa (and soon, possibly, Maine) the same way as straight married couples. Gay couples could file joint D.C. tax returns, and would be entitled to pension and health care benefits as spouses, not just domestic partners. The Human Rights Campaign called the move a "common-sense" thing to do; supporters say a full marriage law won't be far behind.

But even the initial vote could provoke the feds to step in. House and Senate subcommittees that oversee the District review every bill passed by the D.C. legislature, and if they object, Congress can overturn the measure. Usually, federal lawmakers don't interfere with D.C. provisions, but conservatives are already looking forward to telling the District's 591,833 residents how to run their city.

"Some things are worth fighting for, and this is one of them," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who's the GOP's ranking member on the D.C. oversight panel, told the Washington Post. "It's not something I can let go softly into the night... I recognize the Democrats are in the majority, but I represent the majority of Americans on this issue."

That's debatable, as Vincent Rossmeier pointed out here last week. But Chaffetz made clear on his Twitter feed that he's eager to enforce his own moral views on people who aren't his constituents regardless. First, he posted a link to the Post story with his quote, and then -- in response to questions, including a few from me -- he said Congress was completely right to interfere here. "Why am I involved?" he asked. "Congress is set up to oversee the affairs of D.C. I am one of the Members on the relevant committee." The Utah freshman, who knocked off Chris Cannon in a GOP primary last year for not being conservative enough, sleeps on a cot in his office, but that doesn't make him a D.C. resident -- why should Chaffetz have any say at all over D.C. laws?

Since Democrats control both the House and Senate by wide margins, it's unlikely Chaffetz and his pals will have much luck this time. (Federal lawmakers do have a long history of meddling in District business, though.)

But the fact that conservatives are even able to put up a fight over a municipal ordinance in a city where they don't live underscores what's going on. Chaffetz and his allies want to use one injustice -- that Congress can do whatever it wants with the District -- to compound another one -- that gay and lesbian couples aren't treated the same under the law as straight couples. By 2009, you'd hope it wouldn't work.

Update: Maine Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, just signed the state's gay marriage law, which means five states now allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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