The authors of the D.C. gay marriage bill are sensitive folks. While they’re eager to grant gays and lesbians the right to get hitched in the District, they don’t want to upset conservative churches in town. So they threw an exemption into the pending gay-marriage bill [PDF]: No church will be obligated to wed same-sexers. It’s a ceremonial loophole that’s not nearly wide enough for the D.C. arm of the Catholic Church. “The language of the bill only protects us on the day of,” says Susan Gibbs, communications director for the Archdiocese of Washington. “But for us, that day is the launching point for the rest of your life. It’s not a day-long event. It’s a life-long journey.”
Translation: The Archdiocese wants to discriminate against gays and lesbians for much longer than just 24 hours. And that’s their problem with the legislation—same-sex spouses must be treated equally over the course of that life-long journey, for purposes of hiring practices, employment benefits, and adoption.
Yet for that one glorious day, when those bells chime, discrimination rules! The legislation says any “religious society, or a nonprofit organization which is operated, supervised, or controlled by or in conjunction with a religious society” may deny same-sex couples any “services, accommodations, facilities, or goods for a purpose related to the solemnization or celebration of a same-sex marriage.”
So just what sort of “services, accommodations, facilities, or goods” can be safely withheld here? The following is your guide to Legal Same-Sex Wedding Day Discrimination.
• PIANISTS. The “facility” exemption prevents a church opposing same-sex marriage from providing its religious sanctuary for the wedding. But what goods and services are we talking about? The goods and services provision prevents a crafty same-sex couple from walking into a house of God and demanding everything but the church hall for the purpose of their ceremony: From the in-house organist playing “Here Comes the Bride” to the Bibles used to recite Colossians 3:18: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”
Russell J. Weismann, Georgetown University’s director of music and liturgy, serves as the organist for all weddings performed on campus. The Yale-, Duquesne-, and Carnegie Mellon–educated pianist doesn’t play for just anyone: Besides not being gay, couples who march down the aisle to Weismann’s tune must also be Georgetown students, alumni, faculty, or staff. The religious exemption, then, ensures that Weismann’s services won’t need to be legally extended to a couple of Catholic, Georgetown-educated gays who are either serious Weismann fans, or are just trying to make a point.
Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who chairs the committee that finalized the bill’s language, says that goods and services are included in the religious exemption in order to prepare for just such unlikely scenarios. “If a same-sex couple went to a Catholic church, the bill says the church does not have to perform their wedding,” says Mendelson. “But what if the same-sex couple says, ‘We won’t hold our wedding in your sanctuary, but we want to use your Bibles and candles’? If ‘goods and services’ were omitted from the language, the church could be sued over the Bibles and the candles.” And the pianist.
• SOUL FOOD. Saint’s Paradise, a divine cafeteria-style restaurant located at 601A M St. NW, is the perfect spot for a rehearsal dinner in the heart of overpriced, overcrowded downtown D.C.: It’s got family-sized tables, free cornbread, and a very pleasant view of the baptism fountain of the United House of Prayer for All People. The church, true to its name, doles out its extra-sweet candied yams to churchgoers and the general public alike.
That “all people” invitation doesn’t extend to weddings. Pastor Herbert Whitner clarifies the church’s position on gay marriage: “We don’t agree with that,” Whitner says. Same-sex celebrations aren’t exactly welcome on United House of Prayer property.
Rehearsal dinners, however, aren’t strictly a day-of event—they’re more of a night-before kind of thing. Mendelson says the cafeteria’s physical proximity to the church—the restaurant is at 601A, the house of God is at 601—allows the United House of Prayer to deny all wedding-related celebrations, regardless of their timestamp. “I think they could turn away the rehearsal dinner,” Mendelson says. “That’s because it is in the church. It’s a part of the church facility. And since the rehearsal dinner is part of the celebration of marriage, they would be able to say no.”
• “SOMETHING OLD.” The Salvation Army’s sole District shop, located in Northeast’s H Street corridor, wouldn’t be high on the list of any couple’s wedding destinations. Its aisles are a bit cluttered for a procession, seating is limited, and the place smells kind of weird.
What some engaged couples may not know: Beyond its work recycling consumers’ castaways, the Salvation Army is a real functioning Christian church with a penchant for military jargon. Their ministers—“officers” in the Army’s ranks—can be ordained to perform marriages for both Salvationist and non-Salvationist couples. Salvationist marriages are less than traditional. Ranking Salvationist officers are allowed to marry only other officers. Cake is allowed, so long as the couple says grace before the meal, but alcohol is forbidden. Some Salvationists choose to marry in full Army regalia, but the traditional white wedding dress is acceptable, as well. And since the Salvationist moral code is all about giving back, it’s not unlikely that one of these Salvationist ceremonies will lead to one slightly worn, dirt-cheap white dress gracing the racks at 1375 H St. NE.
Since a wedding dress is a good that’s used in the celebration of a same-sex marriage, and the Salvation Army’s religious beliefs clarify that “sexual intimacy is understood as a gift of God to be enjoyed within the context of heterosexual marriage,” would the Army’s thrift store be forced to sell a wedding dress for a gay wedding?
Mendelson says that a religious-owned thrift shop is too removed from the actual church, and a wedding dress purchase too removed from the ceremony, for the exemption to apply to wedding-related retail: “The bill is intended to establish equality for same-sex marriage. If we have exemptions in the sale of wedding dresses, in the baking of wedding cakes, in catering, in photography, then we have a separate and not equal situation.”
Besides, how would the Salvation Army know that the wedding dress is to be used for a same-sex ceremony? “For wedding dresses to be covered, we’d have to allow the checker at the store to say, ‘I’m offended that you’re homosexual so therefore I will not sell you the wedding dress,’” says Mendelson. “A wedding dress could be a part of a Halloween costume. You can’t just stop anyone who is a part of a same-sex couple and say, ‘No, you can’t buy that.’”
Since the Salvation Army hasn’t adopted “don’t ask, don’t tell” as a part of its military shtick, it’s possible that the organization’s thrift shops will not hold their peace in the face of a same-sex marriage dress-fitting. This situation—the Salvation Army making policy out of denying white dresses to same-sex couples—is about as likely as a couple of gay men suing Georgetown over its pianist. Then again, in 2001, the Salvation Army privately called upon the Bush administration to help the organization discriminate against gays and lesbians in hiring. Who’s to say the Army won’t take this opportunity to deny an affordable wedding dress to a lesbian?
Photo by Darrow Montgomery