Pannell testimony against proposed referendum
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Pannell testimony against proposed referendum

June 10, 2009 Testimony of Philip E. Pannell
before the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics
Regarding the Measure “Referendum Concerning the Jury and Marriage Amendment Act of 2009”

I appreciate this opportunity to testify regarding the request for the Measure “Referendum Concerning the Jury and Marriage Amendment Act of 2009.” I am a resident of Ward 8 and an elected Ward 8 DC Democratic State Committeeman. In 1983 I was appointed by Mayor Marion Barry to the District of Columbia Commission on Human Rights. That was one of the greatest honors of my life because in taking an oath to protect and defend the human rights of DC residents I became a member of a panel that upholds the most comprehensive and progressive municipal human rights law in the nation. Although I am no longer a member of that commission, my commitment to human rights for all residents of the city where I live and love has not waned. It is in that spirit that I ask the Board of Elections and Ethics to disallow the referendum measure in question because its intent and effect are intentionally discriminatory. The DC Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The section of the D.C. Code that speaks to proposed initiative and referendum measures clearly states that the Board of Elections and Ethics “shall refuse to accept the measure if the Board finds that it…authorizes, or would have the effect of authorizing, discrimination prohibited under Chapter 14 of Title 2…” or what is commonly known as the DC Human Rights Act. The proposed referendum measure would prohibit the D.C. government from recognizing same-sex marriages from other states. Currently Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and Iowa have legalized civil marriage equality for same-sex couples. If a referendum were passed not to recognize those marriages, the result would be the institutionalized discrimination against a group of people on the basis of their sexual orientation, which would be a clear violation of the DC Human Rights Act. Also, the effect would be to deny same-sex married couples the same benefits that heterosexual married couples are eligible to receive in many areas of community life. The U.S. General Accountability Office has identified 1, 138 rights that heterosexual couples automatically receive after being civically married.

An overarching concern of any DC resident who believes in fairness, equality, freedom and justice should be the fundamental question of having the civil and human rights of minorities subject to plebiscites in a constitutional republic. The dismantling of de jure and de facto discrimination against African Americans has been mostly accomplished by votes of elected representatives and court rulings. If questions of voting rights, segregation, interracial marriage and other discriminatory practices against African Americans had been put to a vote decades ago, national progress toward an equal opportunity and just society would have been seriously impeded. It is extremely difficult for a minority to gain equal rights when hate mongering becomes the electoral strategy of those who would keep that minority oppressed. The District of Columbia government realized this when it codified the prohibition of referenda and initiatives that would violate the Human Rights Act.

It has become abundantly and painfully clear that the proponents of the anti-marriage-equality referendum are basically advocating for a popular vote that will give vent to public homophobia. Unfortunately in our society it is still acceptable in many polite circles to vilify and victimize the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. Hopefully, we in the District of Columbia will not have to be subjected to a campaign of misunderstanding, intolerance, fear, bigotry and hatred toward a minority group of people who were born with a different sexual orientation than the majority. I beseech and implore the members of the Board of Elections and Ethics not to shred our cherished Human Rights Law by authorizing a divisive referendum that will codify discrimination against those of the same gender who seek the civil recognition and benefits for their committed and loving relationships.

Thank you and may fairness and justice guide your deliberations.

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