Wise Council: D.C. Stands Firm On Religion Exemption In Same-Sex Marriage Law

December 2nd, 2009
By Sandhya Bathija
Marriage & Sexuality

It’s always fun to report on church-state victories, and yesterday, we had a big one.

The District of Columbia Council voted 11-2 to permit same-sex couples to marry in the nation’s capital. And despite threats from the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, the council refused to unduly broaden the measure’s religious exemption, which already adequately protected religious freedom.

The D.C. same-sex marriage proposal does not require churches and clergy members to perform a marriage that violates their religious beliefs. It also allows churches and religious organizations to refuse to offer their facilities, goods or services for a marriage not recognized by religious doctrine.

But that isn’t good enough for the Archdiocese. The church hierarchy announced in mid-November that if the marriage bill did not exempt publicly funded “faith-based” organizations from abiding by civil rights laws that protect same-sex couples, the church might stop accepting government funding to perform social services. (Last year, Catholic Charities DC, the social service arm of the archdiocese, received $16 million of its $23 million budget through governmental contracts)

Americans United, along with several other civil liberties and religious groups, wrote to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray Nov. 13 to illustrate why council members should not cave to Catholic hierarchy’s demands. And they listened.

“The separation of church and state is one of the founding principles of our democracy,” said David Catania, the D.C. council member who authored the bill. “However, I have always believed that our public space is large enough to accommodate and respect religious freedoms while ensuring civil equality under the law for all citizens. This bill successfully balances these requirements.”

The council will vote again on Dec. 15 before the “Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009″ can be signed into law by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Congress will have 30 legislative days to block the law, but most are optimistic that we’ve won this battle.

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