Summersgill testifies on marriage equality bill
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Summersgill testifies on marriage equality bill

Testimony by Bob Summersgill on

Bill 18-482, Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009.

Before the Committee on Public Service and the Judiciary, October 26, 2009

Good afternoon Chairman Mendelson:

My name is Bob Summersgill. I am a resident of Cleveland Park. I would like to thank you and the other Councilmembers who introduced this legislation.

This bill is not about the rights and responsibilities of marriage, it isn't about the word "marriage." It isn't about religious views of marriage. It isn't about what might happen when same-sex couples can marry. It isn't it isn't about procreation. It isn't about redefining marriage. There are already hundreds of married same-sex couples in the District. Since July 7, 2009, the reality of those marriages has been recognized by the District government. Again, I thank you and the other Councilmembers who voted for the Jury and Marriage Amendment Act of 2009.

Today’s bill is about whether same-sex couples—mostly gay and lesbian people—will be able to go downtown to get married, or whether we will have to travel to Connecticut, or even further. The bill is about whether we will have one set of laws for all the people in the District, or whether there will be one set of laws for straight people, and another for gays and lesbians.

Since July, hundreds of same-sex married couples have all of the rights and responsibilities of marriage that the District can offer, just as many of them had those rights and responsibilities as domestic partners. So that won’t change with this bill. In D.C., the question of the status and the word "marriage" ended on July 7. Marriage is marriage. It is already open to same-sex couples.

Not the End of the World or the End of Marriage

Opponents of marriage equality will argue in part that marriages between people of the same gender undermine the very institution of marriage. They see marriage as concept; an abstract issue, such as freedom and liberty. Supporters of the bill will argue that marriage is deeply personal. Marriage to them is a fundamental issue in how they order their lives; relate to each other; and present themselves to the world. Opponents of the bill will talk about abstract harm that they believe ending discrimination will do. Supporters will talk about the very real impacts on their day-to-day lives. How denial of a fundamental right hurts them and their families.

We do have some experience with the impact of same-sex couples being able to marry over several years. In Europe, there have been same-sex marriages since 2001, and partnerships since 1989. Long-term trend analysis by noted economist Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett found “…no adverse change have occurred since countries recognized rights for same-sex couples: marriage rates are up, divorce rates are down, and (mostly) nonmarital birth rates are not rising in comparison to rates for the years before the gay couples could register.” [When Gay people Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage (New York: New York University Press, 2009), p. 76.] In Massachusetts, the divorce rate for opposite-sex couples is the lowest of any state. “Provisional data from 2008 indicates that the Massachusetts divorce rate has dropped from 2.3 per thousand in 2007 down to about 2.0 per thousand for 2008.” An Iowa poll found that most people weren’t impacted at all by their state’s marriage equality law. “The overwhelming majority of Iowans - 92 percent - say gay marriage has brought no real change to their lives.”

Religious Freedoms will be Protected

People today will be testifying for and against this bill on what it means in their religious tradition and values. A few churches and groups are against the bill, but hundreds of ministers, priests, and rabbis are in favor. Opponents of the bill will tell you that their religious rights will be infringed. However, this bill guarantees that their right to discriminate will not be infringed. They may refuse to marry us; they may call us bad names. Currently, they may reject anyone's marriage, for any reason. That will not change. They will be able to continue to preach against anyone. That is a cherished right to religious freedom in the United States. The bill also would allow religious groups to spread a message of love, marry anyone they choose, and open their hearts to all. That is exactly the same cherished right to religious freedom that we all share.

Opponents of the bill will say that their religious rights will be infringed outside of the church. When they engage in business, or operate services that are open to all, they will indeed be bound by our Human Rights Act. But that is true whether or not the bill passes, and it has been true since 1973.

This bill isn't it isn't about procreation. Opponents to the bill may say that marriage is for procreating and raising children. However, there is no procreative or fertility test for marriage. While many opposite sex couples chose not or cannot have children, many same-sex couples do. And there is no difference in how the well the children do. The scientific consensus is that children raised by same-sex couples have the statistically the same outcomes for success as do those raised by opposite-sex couples. Marriage does provide security for children. Since 28.6% of adopted children in the District live with a lesbian or gay parent, we do want to make sure those parents are able to marry.

The bill isn't about redefining marriage. No opposite-sex couple will see any change in their own marriage when this bill passes, just as they saw no difference when the Jury and Marriage Amendment Act of 2009 went into effect in July. No right or benefit will change. No responsibility will increase or be lifted. No opposite-sex couple wishing to marry will face any new obstacle or shortage. Their marriages will be unchanged in all respects, other than the taint of discrimination will be removed. However, same-sex couples will feel the difference. That last legal barrier will finally be gone. We will not be denied a fundamental human right.

What the Bill Is Actually About

This bill is about where we get married. Same-sex couples can currently marry in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, and will soon be able to marry in New Hampshire and Maine. Outside of the U.S., same-sex couples can marry in Canada, The Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Spain, and South Africa. They are all recognized as married in D.C. While we can travel to any of these places, we cannot simply go downtown to get a license. This may seem to be a minor thing, but it is about respect and our place in society. It is also about equal access to our laws for the poorest among us. Not everyone can afford a trip to Connecticut to get married, and the people least able to afford such a trip will benefit greatly from an inexpensive entrance into the legal protections of marriage.

There will be a strong economic impact in having marriage equality in the District. According to the Williams Institute, "Extending marriage to same-sex couples will boost the District of Columbia’s economy by over $52.2 million over three years, which would generate increases in local government tax and fee revenues by $5.4 million and create approximately 700 new jobs." As the only place in the South where marriage is an option for same-sex couples, we can expect a boost in wedding tourism, a boost to hotels, restaurants, clubs, caterers, florists, dress and formal wear shops, card shops, hair salons, stores with gift registries, bakeries, etc. Plus, many wedding guests will take advantage of the trip to vacation in D.C. All of this is taxable. So, do we send people away to get married, or do we invite people to D.C. to hold their weddings here?

We are left with the question of what purpose is served by having two sets of laws. One for the gays, and one for the straights. We've had different laws for different people from time to time. These laws to promote and enforce discrimination always show themselves to be failures. They show themselves to be fundamentally un-American. They create a distrust of laws and government.

In the end our laws, system of government, our values, and our consciences reject discrimination. Not all at once, and not all of us together. But when we look by at old prejudices, we collectively wonder what the fuss was about. Today, the fuss is about some people getting married in Iowa, or going downtown.


I have two major amendments to propose to improve this legislation. First, we must not end Domestic Partnerships in this bill. Phasing out the Domestic Partnerships raises significant questions that should be carefully considered. I do not think that a serious consideration of Domestic Partnerships and their future can or should be made in the glare of marriage equality. Some of my concerns are:

  1. We don't want to take Domestic Partnerships away until we have marriage equality safe and settled in law. If the Congress or initiative were to block marriage, but not strike down the whole law, we would lose everything. In California, they found it very important to have both marriage and Domestic Partnerships. This not only protected couples after Proposition 8, but also to have recognition of their relationships in the maximum number of states.

  2. We need to maintain Domestic Partnerships so that we have the legal structure for recognizing Domestic Partnerships and Civil Unions from other jurisdictions. Arguably, if no new Domestic Partnerships can be issued, then new domestic partnerships from other places would also not be recognized.

  3. Although most people who can marry choose marriage, some do not. Unless there is a compelling argument as to why they should be denied the option, we should keep it. Councilmember David Catania says that opposite-sex couples choose marriage 98% of the time. 2% find Domestic Partnerships to be a better choice. I think we should have compelling reasons to take that choice away.

  4. Unlike other states, DC's Domestic Partnerships law covers far more than gay people. This was at John Wilson's insistence. It should not be taken away from people who still are not able to marry.

For these reasons, I ask the Committee to strike section 3 from the bill and, if you feel it necessary, take it up as separate legislation in a few years after we have marriage equality settled in law, and no real threat of the Congress taking it away.

Second, we need to take control of the administration of marriage licensing. Currently marriage licenses in District are issued by the Clerk of the Superior Court. (D.C. Code § 46-410, 46-411, 46-412, 46-413, 46-414), which is operated outside of D.C.’s control. Judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. One hundred percent of the Court’s funding comes from the federal budget. Effectively, this bill asks the U.S. Congress to fund the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This is inviting the Congress to intervene on this legislation, or at a minimum to block funding as they have done with Domestic Partnerships and clean needle exchange programs.

To avoid this, the bill must be amended to move the function of issuance of marriage licenses to the Mayor's authority, presumably to the Office of Vital Statistics, which already tracks marriages and registers domestic partnerships.

Further, officials of the District Government should be authorized to perform marriages. These officials might include the Mayor, Secretary of the District of Columbia, Councilmembers, and notaries public licensed by the District of Columbia. Currently, only religious leaders, Judges, and Clerks of the Court may officiate at a marriage ceremony (§ 46-406).

I have also been advised by Mark Levine of his proposed amendments to the wording of various sections of the bill. I endorse his amendments, but I will leave the presentation to his testimony.

Thank you for this opportunity to testify on Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009. I am available to answer any questions that you may have.

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