Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage in Washington, DC


Mar. 10, 2010

The day when same-sex marriage became legal in the District of Columbia–March 3, 2010–the American Humanist Association issued a press release announcing that its celebrants, certified through the Humanist Society, were "ready and able to perform nontheistic marriage ceremonies for the Washington, DC LGBT community." The Humanist Society had already taken out a series of advertisements in the District's most prominent LGBT magazine, MetroWeekly, declaring its readiness to serve the community. Later, Howard Katz, president of the Humanist Society, said:

The Humanist Society and humanists in general believe in protecting marriage in all forms–which should be a right between two individuals to decide for themselves. We applaud the District of Columbia in realizing that the state has no business in promoting a religious viewpoint of marriage, but instead has decided to promote human dignity by allowing same-sex marriage to take place. 

All of this was the culmination of a political effort that began with a proposed bill, called the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009, put before the Council of the District of Columbia (the city council of the local government of Washington, DC) in October 2009. On December 15, this bill was passed by a vote of 11 to 2, and then signed by Mayor Adrian Fenty on December 18, 2009.

However, by law, the U.S. Congress has thirty legislative days to review Council acts. During this waiting period, a lawsuit was launched to force the DC Board of Elections and Ethics to conduct a public referendum on the Council vote. The suit was quickly supported in a January 7, 2010 friend-of-the-court brief filed by 39 Republican lawmakers in Congress. But a DC Superior Court judge ruled on January 14 that such a referendum could have effectively authorized illegal discrimination. Gay marriage opponents immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Court refused to sign an emergency-stay order, thereby allowing the bill to become law after the congressional waiting period ended on March 2.  

The new law amends existing marriage laws in the District of Columbia by creating Section 1283a. EQUAL ACCESS TO MARRIAGE, which declares that:  

Marriage is the legally recognized union of 2 people. Any person who otherwise meets the eligibility requirements . . . may marry any other eligible person regardless of gender. Each party to a marriage shall be designated "bride," "groom" or "spouse."

The law goes on to declare, "No priest, minister, imam or rabbi of any religious denomination and no official of any nonprofit religious organization authorized to solemnize marriages, as defined in this section, shall be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of his or her right to the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution."

Because the law grants full marriage rights in DC, "The ability to register a new domestic partnership in subsection (a) shall sunset as of January 1, 2011." Existing domestic partnerships can be converted to marriages with the payment of a $10 fee.

In making these changes, the government in the nation's capitol became the sixth in the country to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The others are Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. California had temporarily been among them. (And as a footnote, on the same day that same-sex marriage became legal in Washington, DC, it also became legal in Mexico City.)

All of this comes at a time when the American Religious Identification Survey reveals that 25 percent of those aged 18 to 42 profess no religion, and are therefore unaffected by religious injunctions against same-sex marriage. According to Trinity College sociologist Barry Kosmin, co-director of the survey, the present situation is "a standoff between young people with a tremendous sympathy for civil rights and what appears to be biblical injunctions from religion." All of which suggests that time is on the side of same-sex marriage in the United States.


Fred Edwords is national director of the United Coalition of Reason ( ) and a Humanist Celebrant.