On December 15, 2009, the D.C. Council overwhelmingly passed the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Act of 2009. On December 18, D.C.’s Mayor Adrian Fenton signed the bill and D.C. became the 8th American government to offer full, legal marriage to same-sex couples. This is the 4th U.S. area — after Vermont, Maine (which was soon removed by ballot measure), and New Hampshire — to offer legal marriage without a court order. The law became effective on March 3, 2010.
Since D.C. allows common-law marriage, it is likely that this status would also be available to same-sex couples. This status has never previously been available to same-sex couples.
[See our article: Common-Law Marriage States]
The District of Columbia has had domestic partner registration since 2001.
[See our article: Registration for Domestic Partnership
Even though the D.C. marriage bill was presented legislatively and not by public vote, pro-marriage groups campaigned throughout the district to present the facts and gain support. Said Michael Crawford, leader of D.C. For Marriage: “In D.C., outreach to African-Americans wasn’t part of the campaign. It was the campaign.”
Supporters drew parallels to Martin Luther King Jr.’s advocacy for equal rights. They stated that banning same-sex marriage would one day seem as damaging as the interracial marriage bans overturned by the Supreme Court in 1967. Marriage opponents ran anti-marriage ads on the Howard University radio station, an historically black college. Both sides endeavored to gain support from black leaders and churches.
On April 7, 2009, the same day that Vermont legalized same-sex marriage, the council voted 12-0 to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. On May 5, 2009, a second procedural vote passing the bill 12-1. The act was signed by Mayor Adrian Fenty and was subject to a review period, which expired on July 7, 2009.
On June 13, 2009, the Board of Elections ruled that a petition seeking to repeal the recognition law and delay its enactment until a vote was held in a referendum, would be invalid as it would violate provisions of the Human Right Act specifically disallowing the public voting against protected classes which included sexual orientation.
On June 30, 2009, a D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith E. Retchin ruled against a group opposed to the recognition law, who wanted a referendum on the issue, and a delay to enacting the law until the court decided the full case. The group had filed with the Court three weeks after the passage of the new law, Judge Retchin ruled “there was no excuse” for them to file their lawsuit so late. She also agreed with the Board’s decision that allowing a vote on the issue would violate the Human Rights Act.
D.C. Councilman David Catania introduced the “Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act 2009” on October 6, 2009 to allow same-sex couples to marry in the district.
On 17 November, the D.C. Board of Ethics and Elections rejected a proposed ballot measure from Bishop Harry Jackson to ban same-sex marriage, saying that the proposed ballot measure “authorizes discrimination prohibited under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act.”
On December 1, 2009 the act passed by a vote of 11-2 on its first reading. The second procedural reading was voted on December 15, 2009 where the measure was again passed 11-2.
On December 18, 2009, District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenton signed the bill ending discrimination in marriage
against LGBT families in our nation’s capitol.
The bill signing, was hosted by Rev. Robert Hardies and his congregation at All Souls Church, Unitarian, and featured Mayor Fenty, along with D.C. religious, spiritual, political, and civil and gay rights leaders. Rev. Hardies, is a co-chair of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality, and he stated:
“The signing of this bill marks a watershed moment for human rights in the District of Columbia. No longer will gay and lesbian couples be denied the fundamental right to marriage in our nation’s capital. I and the nearly 200 D.C. clergy who supported this bill look forward to celebrating the marriages of loving lesbian and gay couples in sanctuaries like this one all over our city. I applaud Mayor Fenty and the D.C. Council for standing on the side of love and ending discrimination against gay and lesbian Washingtonians.”
At the same event, Rev. Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations issued the following statement:
“I applaud the new law that extends marriage rights to same-sex couples in Washington, D.C. This legislation will make a profound difference to many Washington families, and it will shine as a beacon of hope for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens across the country.
Rev. Nathan Harris, pastor of Lincoln Congregational Temple, United Church of Christ, and member of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality, praised the new law:
“I extend my admiration and gratitude to Mayor Fenty and the D.C. City Council members. When lawmakers step up to end discrimination and protect families, all Americans benefit. The overwhelming support for marriage equality by District leaders is heartening, especially following recent set-backs at state ballot boxes. I believe that justice ultimately will prevail as more civic leaders and private citizens come forward to stand proudly on the side of love.”
“Today is a historic day in our community for social justice and inclusion in keeping with the proudest traditions of our religious heritage. For too long it has been unjust to deny same-sex couples the opportunity to consecrate their relationships in the same way in which we allow opposite-sex couples. Our coalition of nearly 200 D.C. clergy believe that marriage equality fulfills our commitment to God’s love and justice. Nevertheless, we respect our friends who hold different views and are pleased that today’s law embraces our nation’s strongest traditions of religious freedom.”
On March 2, 2010, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. rejected a request from opponents of same-sex marriage to have the United States Supreme Court delay the law.
Because of the District’s unique jurisdictional status, all bills passed by the Council and signed by the Mayor must go to Congress for a review period of 30 legislative days. There was a congressional attempt to block the law in December 2009, however, it did not get enough support, and, after the review period, the bill became law on March 3, 2010.
The mayor’s office said that typically the court processes 10 licenses per day. By late afternoon of the first day of issuing license application, more than 140 couples had filed to be married.
A study by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, predicted that more than 14,000 same-sex marriages would occur in the city during the next three years, which could bring in $5 million in new tax revenue and create 700 jobs.
In July 2010, Bishop Harry Jackson’s suit claiming that the D.C. Charter Amendment Act of 1977 gave him the right to place the new marriage equality law up to public vote was rejected. The Washington D.C. COurt of Appeals agreed with the D.C. Elections Board that the proposed initiative was unlawful because of the anti-discrimination provisions in the Initiative Procedures Act which bans ballot measures that result in discrimination prohibited by the Human Rights Act.
District of Columbia marriage licenses:
D.C. Superior Court Marriage Bureau
H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse
500 Indiana Avenue N.W., Room #4485
Washington, DC 20001
- 18 or older.
- 16 years old is allowed with the consent of a parent or guardian.
- Proof of age must be shown and may be demonstrated by driver’s licenses, birth certificates, passports, or similar official documents.
- License Application fee is $35 (This fee is waived if the applicants’ original Domestic Partnership Certificate registered under D.C. Code §32-702 is presented at the time of application).
- If you were previously registered as a District of Columbia Domestic Partnership, upon marrying, your Domestic Partnership automatically dissolves and you are simply married.
- If you are part of a Domestic Partnership or Civil Union from another state, the other state’s law may require you to dissolve it prior to marrying in the District of Columbia. Check the other state’s law about your responsibilities
and obligations relating to dissolving that legal relationship prior to marrying.
- The Certificate of Marriage fee is $10.
- All fees must be paid by cash or money order (made out to “Clerk, D.C. Superior Court”).
- The Marriage License Application must include social security numbers, addresses, dates of birth for both parties as well as previous marriage information, that is, the city, state, country of each marriage and the ending status of each, such as, by divorce or death. Also included: Home and work telephone numbers for both parties.
- Religious celebrants (such as a minister, priest, rabbi, or imam) and judges other than those of the D.C. Courts must be authorized by the Court and registered by the Marriage Bureau. ($35 cash fee for authorization to celebrate marriages)
- The full name of the intended celebrant must be given at the time of the application for verification and placement on the license. Otherwise, a request for a Civil Wedding may be made and a clerk will attempt to schedule the marriage ceremony with a court official on or near the date you request, but not sooner than ten business days after your license becomes valid.
- 3 full days must pass between the day of application to the day that the license can be issued.
- The fee payment receipt is required to pick up the license.
- Marriage licenses are issued in person, not by mail.
- Cousins can marry.
- No blood test required (this law changed on September 11, 2008).
For divorce decrees:
D.C. Superior Court Marriage Bureau
H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse
500 Indiana Avenue N.W., Room #4335
Washington, DC 20001
A person seeking a divorce may file a complaint for divorce in the District Court if they have resided in D.C. for at least 6 months.
A divorce may be granted if:
A legal separation may be granted if the parties have lived apart, sharing neither bed nor board. A legal separation may be converted to an absolute divorce.
- Both parties have mutually and voluntarily lived separate and apart without cohabitation for a period of six months.
- Both parties have lived separate and apart without cohabitation for a period of one year.
- Both parties have pursued separate lives, sharing neither bed nor food, can be deemed living separate and apart, even if they reside in the same house.
Legal Marriage Rights and Responsibilities
- Emergency medical care and hospital visitation
- Economic protections upon death of a spouse, such as inheritance rights
- Burial, autopsies, and disposition of remains
- Wrongful death and other kinds of claims that depend upon spousal status
- Receive workers’ compensation benefits if a spouse dies in the workplace
- Health insurance and pension benefits for spouses of public employees
- May file joint state tax returns, take spousal deductions on state income taxes, and receive tax benefits when transferring interests in property
- Separation, divorce, and caring for any children of the couple
- Liability for your spouse’s debts
- Limitations on your ability to make decisions about your property and who will inherit from you
- Obligations to provide support for your spouse during both marriage and divorce
Warnings: Marriage Law Pitfalls
The armed services would likely consider marriage to a same-sex spouse as grounds for a discharge under its discriminatory policies towards lesbian and gay personnel.
Since the federal system does not recognize same-sex couples, or their legal marriages, getting married does not offer a route to applying for immigration.
There currently is no process that allows a same-sex partner to sponsor a partner for immigration to the U.S. There is no process that allows an individual to sponsor their same-sex partner to become a "Permanent Legal Resident." In the eyes of the American federal system, same-sex couples are legal strangers.
Non-District of Columbia Residents
Partners who are not D.C. citizens may be married in D.C.
However, because many state laws forbid recognition of another state’s same-sex legal marriage license, a civil marriage license would have little or no legal meaning.
Also, it is possible that a D.C. couple would get married, then move elsewhere. While it is certain that the federal system will refuse to recognize the license, it is now known that most states will likewise refuse to recognize it.
In the Event of a Couple Parting
D.C. divorce requires a 6 month residency for one of the parties.
If you live in a state that does not honor your marriage — which may not be determined until requesting something usually triggered by a marriage license — that state’s courts will also be unlikely to grant you a divorce.
The ability to divorce is critical. Besides the emotional reasons to dissolve a no longer functioning union, there are legal entanglements to consider. For instance, should one of the partners form a new relationship, they would not be able to sign up their new partner for workplace benefits. Most employers require an affidavit that stipulates that the partners are not married to anyone else, or have another domestic partner.
Links to Official State Instructions
District of Columbia Superior Court Marriage Bureau - Information and procedures
Marriage License Application - PDF file
Governments that offer Full Legal Marriage
South Africa (2005)
New Zealand (2013)
New Zealand (2013)
(England, Wales, Scotland) (2013)
US States & Territories
New Hampshire (2009)
District of Columbia (2009)
New York (2011)
Rhode Island (2013)
New Jersey (2013)
New Mexico (2013)
Michigan (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
Arkansas (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
West Virginia (2014)
Kansas (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
North Carolina (2014)
South Carolina (2014)
U.S. Supreme Court (June 26, 2015):
Ruling: All U.S. States must now
allow same-sex couples the
freedom of legal marriage.
Native American Tribes|
Coquille Tribe, Oregon (2009)
Mashantucket Pequot, Connecticut (2011)
Suquamish Tribe, Washington (2011)
Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Washington (2013)
Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Minnesota (2013)
Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Michigan (2013)
Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, Michigan (2013)
Santa Ysabel Tribe, California (2013)
Confederated Tribes of the Colville Nation, Washington (2013)
Cheyenne, Oklahoma (2013)
Arapaho, Oklahoma (2013)
Leech Lake Tribal Court, Minnesota (2013)
Puyallup Tribe, Washington (2914)
Wind River Indian Reservation, Wyoming (2014)
Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Michigan, (2014)
Colville Confederated Tribes, Washington (2014)
Central Council of Tlingit, Alaska (2015)
Haida Indian Tribes, Alaska (2015)