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November 10, 2009

Committee passes marriage bill 4-1, defeats conscience clause

The D.C. Council Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary today passed Bill 18-482, the "Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009," by a 4 to 1 vote. It will now go to the Committee of the Whole on November 17, where it will be placed on the agenda of the full Council's legislative meeting on December 1 to receive its first reading. The second and final reading will occur either at a special legislative meeting later in December if one is added, or at the legislative meeting in early January. Then it will go to Mayor Adrian Fenty for his signature.

At today's committee markup, committee chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) presented the "committee print" of the bill, which had been revised from the originally-introduced version as follows:

  1. The provision to sunset the Domestic Partnership law as of January 1, 2011 was deleted.
  2. The limiting "unless" clause has been dropped from the religious exemption provision, which originally stated: "[A] religious organization, association or society, or a nonprofit organization which is operated, supervised, or controlled by or in conjunction with a religious organization, association or society, shall not be required to provide services, accommodations, facilities, or goods for a purpose related to the solemnization or celebration of a marriage, or the promotion of marriage, that is in violation of the entity's religious beliefs, unless the entity makes such services, accommodations, or goods available for purchase, rental, or use to members of the general public."

    The revised religious exemption provision reads as follows: "[A] religious society, or a nonprofit organization which is operated, supervised, or controlled by or in conjunction with a religious society, shall not be required to provide services, accommodations, facilities, or goods for a purpose related to the solemnization or celebration of a same-sex marriage, or the promotion of same-sex marriage through religious programs, counseling, courses, or retreats, that is in violation of the entity's religious beliefs." A newly inserted passage, which I have put in bold type for emphasis, enumerates the types of activities in which a religious entity is entitled to discriminate, thus limiting the permitted discrimination to those types of activities. (I confirmed this with committee staff.)

Committee member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) proposed an amendment that would have added a so-called "conscience clause" — that is, it would have added "any individual" to the list of those permitted to discriminate against a same-sex married couple, on the basis of the individual's religious belief. This would have gone far beyond the protection of religious organizations to effectively gut the D.C. Human Rights Act protections for same-sex couples by allowing anyone to deny them a public accommodation merely by invoking personal religious beliefs. Alexander's amendment was defeated by a vote of 4 to 1. Committee member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) helped defeat the amendment by making its broad implications clear through questions to Alexander.

Those voting against Alexander's amendment and for the committee print of the bill were Mendelson, Cheh, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4). Alexander voted for her amendment and against the bill, saying that the bill does more than its title indicates. Thanks to the four members who voted with us, and to Brian Moore of Mendelson's staff, who prepared the committee print and report. I will post links to those documents as soon as Moore finishes making technical and editorial corrections, which will be later today.

Update: Tim Craig reports in WaPo.

Update 2: Bob Summersgill says, "I understand that Committee Clerk Heidi Tseu helped with editing the Committee Report. Brian Moore was the primary author, as you state." Kudos all around!

Update 3: Committee print of the bill is here. Committee report is here.

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