HRC Blog

DC High Court Decision Represents Significant Civil Rights Victory

The road to today’s important ruling by the Court of Appeals, D.C.’s highest court, began more than 30 years ago when the D.C. Council adopted, at the urging of local civil rights leaders, a law that restricts ballot initiatives that discriminate against protected minority groups.  Long before there was a Prop. 8 in California or Question 1 in Maine, the drafters of the 1979 D.C. law showed considerable foresight that, even in a democracy, people’s fundamental rights should never be put to a public vote.  Today, the Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, upheld that significant civil rights protection.  The Court ruled 5-4 that the Council had acted properly, pursuant to the Home Rule Act, when it passed the law requiring the rejection of any ballot initiative that would authorize prohibited discrimination under D.C.’s Human Rights Act. The Court held unanimously that a recently proposed ballot initiative overturning same-sex marriage in D.C. would have the effect of allowing such discrimination.  On the latter point the Court noted that “the initiative… would take away from those individuals a civil right that the Council has seen fit to recognize and expressly allow, and its effect would be to authorize discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.” On March 3, 2010, D.C. became the sixth jurisdiction in the United States to permit same-sex couples to marry after the D.C. Council overwhelmingly approved marriage equality, Mayor Fenty signed the legislation and the mandatory Congressional review period for D.C. legislation expired.  The law serves as a poignant reminder in the nation’s capital of the historic progress towards equality being made across the country.  In the past few months, hundreds of same-sex couples have walked out of the D.C. courthouse with marriage licenses and experienced the benefits and responsibilities of legal recognition of their relationships. However, for more than a year, opponents of marriage equality – led by the National Organization for Marriage and Alliance Defense Fund – have fought a losing battle, first to stop the law from taking effect and then to overturn it through a ballot initiative.  NOM and ADF filed no less than three referenda/initiatives with the D.C. Board of Elections & Ethics and a myriad of lawsuits with state and federal courts.  Opponents also unsuccessfully tried to get Congress to intervene in this matter.  These failed coordinated efforts were financed and operated not by local residents but by national and out-of-state groups that are sparing no expense to fight against LGBT rights across the country. Ultimately they have been unsuccessful in D.C., where they ran up against civil rights protections established decades ago.  In the end, opponents of marriage equality have been defeated because the people of D.C., through their elected representatives, took a stand for equality – both in 1979 when they proscribed discrimination in the ballot initiative process and this year when D.C. adopted full marriage equality.    While NOM, ADF and their allies may make a desperate appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or pressure Congress to act in the future, for now D.C. residents can take comfort in the fact that marriage equality is – and should remain – a reality in the District.  And no one has the right to try to take that away at the ballot box.

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