Conservatives take aim at D.C. marriage law

Opponents of same-sex marriage make good on threat to try to overturn a D.C. law recognizing the ceremonies.

By Mike Madden
Published May 21, 2009 10:22PM (EDT)

WASHINGTON -- Some threats, apparently, are grave enough to justify throwing any principle out the window.

No, this isn't another post about Dick Cheney's justification of torture. A group of conservative House members who believe in limiting federal involvement in local affairs introduced legislation Thursday that would block Washington, D.C., from recognizing gay marriages performed elsewhere in the United State. The bill would overturn local legislation that the D.C. Council passed last month. The nearly three dozen small-government conservatives who sponsored the House bill evidently decided the risk of letting gays and lesbians marry was far more dangerous than whatever evil might come from letting the federal government muck around with local business.

"The family is truly the foundational institution of our nation, and marriage is its cornerstone," Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, said in a statement. Jordan, who cosponsored the "D.C. Defense of Marriage Act" with Rep. Dan Boren, an Oklahoma Democrat (yes, you read that right), continued: "I look forward to working with the D.C. community, a majority of who -- like a majority of Americans -- support traditional marriage. This is a fight we cannot shy away from, and it is a fight we have to win."

The problem for Jordan and his cronies is, no matter what they may think about what a majority of D.C. residents think, a majority of the duly elected legislature for the district voted in favor of recognizing gay and lesbian marriages. Jordan -- whose office telephone-call hold music is a jaunty collection of patriotic marches -- wouldn't ordinarily seem like the type of lawmaker who would believe in overturning local laws.

But Congress has never been shy about telling D.C. residents how to govern themselves. Washington got the right to elect its own mayor and district council only in 1973. Asked if Jordan saw any conflict between his conservative principles and this new legislation, a spokeswoman got a little snippy.

"D.C. Council has the ability to run their city, but they do not have the right to redefine marriage -- which has national implications when done in our nation's capital," said the spokeswoman, Meghan Snyder. "In this case, it is appropriate for Congress to step in."

The ranking Republican on the House subcommittee that oversees D.C. affairs, Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, was crowing about the bill all day on his Twitter feed and at a press conference on the bill. "Just completed press conference to introduce DC Marriage Act to define DC marriage as between one man and one woman," he wrote. A little later, after people started asking him why he felt so free to rewrite the local laws of a city where he can't even be bothered to rent an apartment, he cited the Constitution. "Article I Section 8 of the US Constitution is the reference regarding Congress' responsibility for DC," he wrote on Twitter.

But since the chances of the Democratic-led House letting this measure even come to a vote are pretty slim, maybe Chaffetz and Jordan and their pals should stick to "the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings," as the Constitution says, and let D.C. residents run the district the way they want to. "Congress shouldn't be interfering on what's clearly a local matter, and one which D.C. residents have already spoken out on," said Jaline Quinto, a spokeswoman for DC Vote, a local group that's pushing for Congress to leave the D.C. alone.

A handful of local ministers, as well as Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry, have already threatened to try to defeat the councilmembers who voted for the D.C. marriage proposal. If Washington's residents are really so up in arms about the prospect of a gay or lesbian couple having the same rights as a straight couple that they want to do something about it, they won't need help from Ohio and Utah. And if the district really is ready to recognize all marriages equally, they shouldn't have to deal with Jordan and Chaffetz telling them they can't.

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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