During a meeting of the Washington, D.C., Ward 8 Democrats in late May to debate a resolution urging the City Council to legalize same-sex marriage, Ward 8 Committee member Phillip Pannell accused those opposed to the resolution of being part of an outside right-wing campaign to divide the city. The City Council had just passed, by a 12 to 1 vote, a law recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, and wards across the city were considering resolutions in support of full marriage equality for District residents.
"Let's be very clear," Pannell said, addressing the audience. "Right-wing Republicans are willing to raise millions of dollars to dump it into this city to rip this community apart. They think that because this is a predominantly African American city, they can do the same kind of stuff that they did in California in terms of Prop. 8."
The Rev. Patrick Walker, head of the local Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference (MBMC) task force opposing same-sex marriage, quickly took exception to Pannell's accusation.
"I am not part of any right-wing Republican Party; I have not talked to anybody from the right-wing Republican Party, and all of these supposed monies that will be dumped into our city, we strongly oppose that," Walker said firmly. "We believe that this is a decision that should be made by the District of Columbia."
But the truth is that while the District’s marriage-equality movement is a local operation, run by groups like the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA) and the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the anti-marriage-equality movement here is comprised of both local groups and outside agitators connected to national right-wing interest groups. These outside figures aren't just working within the District -- they're lobbying Congress to use its oversight authority to circumvent the City Council.
The outcome in D.C. has national implications because it is taking place in a majority black community. Black voters are a key segment of the Democratic Party base and Republicans have long sought to split them off using cultural wedge issues such as gay marriage. The battle over marriage equality in Washington is ultimately a test of how effective that strategy can be.
In 1992, D.C. was one of the first jurisdictions to pass domestic-partnership laws recognizing gay relationships. Though decades of reforms have granted domestic partners many of the benefits of marriage, some benefits, such as Social Security, are still missing. Most significantly, while the benefits of marriage are similar in every state, domestic-partnership laws vary, and not all states have them.
On April 7, the D.C. City Council passed a law recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states. The next step, activists agreed, would be a push for a local gay-marriage law. That’s when the opposition mobilized. Its local leader is the Rev. Patrick Walker, pastor of the Macedonia Baptist Church in Southeast Washington. Other groups, including the local Catholic archdiocese, have spoken out in opposition.
Stand 4 Marriage DC, which has connections to outside religious-right groups, is led by Bishop Harry Jackson, a longtime point man for the religious right's outreach to minority communities. Jackson is pastor of a large Fellowship International Church congregation in Greenbelt, Maryland, several miles outside the District. Jackson says he and many of his congregants are District residents, but on June 10 the Washington Blade reported that Jackson owns multiple residences and only registered as a District voter in April of this year, when the fight over marriage equality began in earnest. Both Walker and Jackson have made efforts to maintain cordial relations with marriage-equality activists. Walker has met with the Gertrude Stein Club, and at Wednesday’s D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics meeting on same-sex marriage, Jackson walked over to Pannell and shook his hand.
Jackson and Walker share a belief that the black residents of the District oppose marriage equality, based on black support for Proposition 8 in California, which outlawed same-sex marriages. While the two anti-marriage-equality groups are independent of each other, they've begun working together; Walker describes the two groups as "allies." Jackson's operation is more organized and media savvy and has connections to the national anti-marriage-equality movement, whereas Walker's MBMC, despite representing more than 500 local churches in the area, has struggled to draw attention to its efforts. If local activists want to defeat marriage equality, they may have no choice but to throw in with Jackson, the “outsider.”
Walker, on the other hand, is a longtime resident of the District. Raised by a single mother in Shaw, he attended public school in the city, became a youth preacher at 15 and eventually settled down as pastor of his own church in 2003. The Missionary Baptist Ministers’ Conference, founded in 1885, is a fixture in local politics, opposing the closing of a local hospital and pushing the D.C. government to regulate predatory lending. The group has opposed the District’s domestic-partnership laws since the early 1990s.
Walker believes the City Council ignored the wishes of residents by passing the law recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. "The City Council took action on this issue without bringing it to the residents of the District of Columbia in any form or fashion," Walker says. "It was almost a back-door kind of thing."
As a result, Walker and the MBMC are attempting to gather support for a citywide referendum that would ban same-sex marriage. Richard Rosendall, a lawyer for the GLAA, says marriage-equality activists are confident they'd prevail in a referendum. A 2006 poll of 800 D.C. residents commissioned by marriage-equality groups found that District residents as a whole would favor marriage equality, and black residents would oppose it only by a slight majority. At the same time, advocates say marriage is a civil right and shouldn’t be subject to “a show of hands.”
The issue of a referendum is where the two opposition groups, outside and local, began to converge. According to Jackson, the two camps have been meeting since March, and "regularly" since late April.
A veteran of campaigns to ban same-sex marriage in Florida, Arizona, and California, Jackson is represented by Shirley and Bannister Public Affairs, a conservative public-relations firm that also represents luminaries Ann Coulter and Peggy Noonan, as well as the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, with whom Jackson co-authored a book. Two of the signatories to a letter Jackson and other D.C.-area clergy penned to Mayor Adrian Fenty opposing same-sex marriage are members of the American Clergy Leadership Conference, a group founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who also owns the right-wing Washington Times. The treasurer of Stand 4 Marriage DC is Brian S. Brown, who is also the executive director of the National Organization for Marriage. And the group is represented by Brian Raum, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian-right legal organization founded by James Dobson. Jackson says he's still a registered Democrat, but this is another point at which the two men diverge: While Walker volunteered for the Obama campaign, Jackson spent election season penning Townhall columns in support of John McCain.
Walker insists his group wants to keep same-sex marriage in the District a "D.C. issue." But Jackson hasn't been content to leave the fate of same-sex marriage up to a referendum. He has been meeting with Republican members of Congress in the hope of overturning the recently passed D.C. law recognizing same-sex marriages in other states. Jackson has also supported Rep. Jim Jordan's efforts to pass the D.C. Defense of Marriage Act, which would outlaw same-sex marriage in the District.
Both Jordan and Jackson insist that the "unique status" of D.C. as the nation's capital justifies congressional interference. "The District has every right to home rule; what they don't have a right to do is redefine what marriage is in our nation's capitol," Jordan says. Jackson concurs. "This is America's capitol,” he says. “It's obvious what happens here is going to affect this entire nation."
Jackson dismisses the idea that he's circumventing District residents by pushing for congressional involvement. "I feel that what the D.C. City Council did [by passing the marriage-recognition law] was similar to what they accuse the Congress of doing." While Walker and the MBMC claim they're committed to finding a local solution to their problem, Walker would welcome Congress' intervention even though he isn’t lobbying Congress directly. "It would be a blessing," he says.
Jackson has a record of defeating marriage-equality efforts, but he may have his work cut out for him in D.C. On Wednesday, the city Board of Elections and Ethics held a hearing to decide whether a referendum on recognizing same-sex marriages performed outside of the District would run afoul of the city's human-rights law. Under the legislation, proposed laws that would have the purpose or effect of discriminating against people cannot be subject to a referendum.
The D.C. City Council has already indicated it intends to consider extending marriage rights to same-sex couples within the year. Staffers for Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the ranking Republican member on the House subcommittee that oversees D.C., say he's committed to getting the law overturned. But Democratic House and Senate staffers have said the leadership has no intention of interfering with the city recognizing same-sex marriages. But even if the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics determines that the referendum doesn't discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and the prolonged court battle that is likely to ensue ends in anti-marriage activists' favor, the D.C. City Council has the authority to overturn the results of voter referendums. In 1994, D.C. residents voted overwhelmingly to set term limits for the mayor and members of the City and school board. The City Council voted to overturn the results before they took effect. The margin of support on the Council for the last same-sex-marriage law that was passed suggests it may be willing to do the same again.
Gay-marriage activists believe time is on their side. Walker seems to fear they're right, pointing to the character Omar from The Wire, a gay inner-city hero, as evidence that the LGBT community has succeeded in making itself just another part of America's cultural landscape.
"I don't know where we're gonna be as a nation 10 years from now. The polls say [gay-marriage activists] are making strides by leaps and bounds," Walker says. "When I'm 55 or 60, fighting this battle is going to be kind of rough. The perceptions are changing."