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D.C. Gay Marriage Bill Takes Effect: What It Means

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By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on July 07, 2009 12:04 PM

An article published today in FindLaw's Writ by professors and columnists Joanna Grossman and Edward Stein kicks off a "state of the nation" report on same-sex marriage rights. The piece takes a look at the history of the movement and also suggests that, despite recent advances for advocates of gay marriage in the past few months, "we are unlikely to see significant additional changes in the near term." At the same time, however, the AP reports that, just today, a gay marriage bill took effect in Washington, D.C. Isn't this a pretty big step? Well, taking a closer look at the D.C. law, it does seem to be a bit more of a proverbial baby step for gay marriage advocates than a giant leap.

First off, despite the possible connotations that come with referring to something as a gay marriage bill, the D.C. law doesn't mean that gay marriages can be performed there. In fact, issuing gay marriage licenses in the city is still illegal. Instead, the bill allows for gay marriages performed in other states to be recognized in the nation's capital. Although gay marriage recognition is certainly not inconsequential, currently there are only six states that allow gay marriage: Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Although it was passed by the D.C. council in a strong vote of 12-1 (Marion Barry represented the lone dissenting vote), Congress still had 30 days to review the bill. At that time, some had suggested that it could result in a "culture-wars battle" within Congress, but instead Congress took no action and the bill became law. An effort by opponents to derail the bill via referendum to voters also failed reportedly because, in part, "the referendum would violate the District's Human Rights Act of 1977 that prohibits discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation."

Despite the fact that the law doesn't allow for same sex marriages to be performed in the city, it may simply be a precursor to the real deal -- a bill allowing same-sex marriages to be performed in the nation's capital. Such a bill is expected to be considered by the D.C. Council in the Fall. If approved by the Council, it will be interesting to see if Congress would again respond with silence or if the previously expected culture-wars battle would ensue.

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