The D.C. Council will consider Tuesday whether to recognize domestic partnerships granted in other states and countries - a decision that could serve as a prelude to the city's own attempt to legalize same-sex marriage.
The council last year gave Mayor Adrian M. Fenty authority to recognize gay relationships as legally legitimate if they are "substantially similar" to domestic partnerships already recognized as legal by the District. The city is one of about 12 jurisdictions in the United States that recognizes same-sex unions in some form.
Mr. Fenty had not acted on the authority as of last month. The District's top lawyer reportedly has voiced concern that other jurisdictions' definitions of domestic partnerships may not be "substantially similar."
Council members Tuesday will consider legislation that makes the recognition of marriages equal to domestic partnerships in the District even without the mayor's certification.
In addition, some council members have discussed going further and fully recognizing same-sex marriages performed elsewhere as marriages.
"What we are doing is taking away the mayor's discretion in cases where the outcome is obvious," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the council's Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary. "The issue is about whether we give full faith and credit to other states."
The council also will consider giving recognition for relationships that are similar to domestic partnerships in the District and have all "the rights and responsibilities of marriage" in another jurisdiction. Another provision in the legislation allows the mayor to certify relationships that fall short of marriage as domestic partnerships in the District.
The mayor would have to "establish and maintain a certified list of jurisdictions so recognized," according to the bill.
"The mayor shall broadly construe the term 'substantially similar' to maximize the recognition of relationships from other jurisdictions as domestic partnerships in the District," the legislation states.
The bill is on the council's consent agenda, which lists legislation likely to pass without debate.
At least five states - California, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon and Vermont - permit broad civil unions or domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, according to the New York City-based organization Freedom to Marry.
Connecticut and Massachusetts currently permit same-sex marriages, while the Iowa Supreme Court last week struck down a law that limited marriage to one man and one woman, effectively legalizing the unions there.
In the District, recognition entitles domestic partners to benefits that can include health insurance coverage and mutual visitation rights in hospitals and nursing homes, and generally equates a domestic partner with a spouse in sections of city law.
With the mayor's certification or passage of the law, gay couples recognized in other states would not have to register as domestic partners with the city, just as heterosexual couples who relocate to the District do not have to register.
D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles could not be reached for comment Tuesday. The public safety committee included the recognition provisions in its markup of a bill that also provides legal recognition of the parent-child relationship for children born to domestic partners - legislation that the attorney general's office has said could result in the city losing federal funds.
Mr. Mendelson, who introduced the parentage bill with Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, said there also had been discussions about amending the legislation to recognize same-sex marriages in other states as marriages in the District - not just as domestic partnerships.
But the move could prove politically risky, because Council member David A. Catania also has considered introducing broader legislation to legalize gay marriage in the District. Sending the current bill to Congress - which has authority over city laws - with a measure recognizing same-sex marriages from other states as marriage in the District may awaken unwanted opposition on Capitol Hill.
A similar scenario played out after the 1992 passage of the city law that first allowed same-sex couples to register as domestic partners: Congress prohibited the District from spending any of its own funds to implement the law, until the ban was finally lifted in fiscal 2002.
Federal lawmakers more recently have intervened in D.C. affairs by amending legislation that would grant the District a vote in Congress with a measure that would gut the city's gun laws.
"There is still concern in the community whether pressing for gay marriage in D.C. immediately is the best way to move forward, or if it would be better to wait a short time until there's a better understanding of the reception it will receive both in the broader community and in Congress," said Peter D. Rosenstein, a gay community activist who said he is in favor of gay marriage.
Mr. Mendelson acknowledged that the word "marriage" could prove a "a hot-button issue." An aide to Mr. Catania said the council member did not wish to comment about the possible amendment, but acknowledged that "he's still committed to marriage equality" in the city.
"He would like to do it this year," Catania spokesman Benjamin Young said.
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