After suffering setbacks from California to New York, Maine to New Jersey, same-sex marriage supporters got a victory Tuesday with the City Council's vote to legalize gay marriage in the District of Columbia.
Gay couples could begin tying the knot in the district as early as March. The only hurdles left to clear are the city's mayor, who has promised to sign the bill, and Congress, which has final say over laws in the nation's capital. The district's nonvoting delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, said she expects no opposition there.
"Make no mistake, 2009 has been one hell of a year for marriage equality," said David Catania, who introduced the bill and is one of two openly gay council members.
Council members said that it was symbolic that the nation's capital had voted to pass gay marriage. But the city is also in many ways not representative of the nation. More than three quarters of the voters in the city of 600,000 are registered Democrats.
Patrick J. Egan, a professor of politics at New York University, called the city "the most liberal and Democratic-party-dominated jurisdiction in the United States."
Congress now has 30 working days to act on the bill, but it has rejected legislation just three times in the past 25 years.
"I believe I have assurances that the barn door is locked," said Norton, a Democrat who called the legislation "historic" and said she was "proud" of the council.
Tuesday's 11-2 vote was no surprise. Two members voted "I do" when their names came up, and when the vote finished a packed chamber erupted into cheers and applause. The "no" votes included former Mayor Marion Barry, now a council member.
If the bill becomes law, the district will join Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts and Vermont in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. They will be able to wed in New Hampshire starting in January.
Gay marriage supporters have had less success elsewhere recently. Maine voters overturned the state's same-sex marriage law last month. Earlier this month, the New York state Senate rejected a bill that would have allowed gay couples to marry.
The New Jersey Legislature, which had been working on a same-sex marriage bill, postponed a recent vote when the measure appeared headed for defeat. Sponsors now want the Assembly to consider it first, but that probably won't happen until after the new year, if at all.
Tuesday's vote in the district came after several months of discussion, including two marathon council hearings at which some 250 witnesses testified.
Opponents included the Archdiocese of Washington. The Archdiocese said it might have to stop providing adoptions and other services because the law would force it to extend benefits to same-sex couples, violating church beliefs.
But most who testified were supporters. Some, teary-eyed, asked the council to let friends, relatives or themselves marry. One man proposed to his partner during his testimony.
Opponents, however, said the issue is far from settled. Members of a group called Stand4Marriage, led by local pastor Bishop Harry Jackson, have met with members of Congress to urge them to oppose the bill.
An attorney for the group, Cleta Mitchell, said that after the bill goes to Congress, the group will ask the district's board of elections to allow a referendum on the ballot asking voters to overturn it.
But they face an uphill battle.
The group Mitchell represents made a similar request this summer, when the city passed a law recognizing gay marriages legally performed in other states. The board declined to put the issue on the ballot, citing a city human rights law that bars discrimination.
Jackson said Tuesday he believes this time the group has an "airtight legal case."
"If it gets to the vote, we win," he said, referencing the other states where residents overturned same-sex marriage laws.
The group also has another avenue of attack. It has lawsuit pending from earlier this year, when it tried to get an initiative on the ballot in D.C. asking voters to define marriage as between a man and a woman. There, too, the elections board cited the human rights law in keeping it off the ballot. A hearing in that case is scheduled for January.