The Supreme Court was the big story on Wednesday, striking down DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. However, on the same morning the Board of the National League of Cities (NLC) took a major stride towards equality by approving “A RESOLUTION AFFIRMING THE FREEDOM TO MARRY AND FEDERAL NON-DISCRIMINATION FOR GAY AND LESBIAN COUPLES”, after an intense but thoughtful and reflective hour-long debate. I moved approval of the resolution, which was presented to the Board by our 1st Vice President, Mayor Chris Coleman of St. Paul, Minnesota and the Chair of our Finance, Administration, and Intergovernmental Relations (FAIR) Committee at the request of the NLC LGBT Caucus.
The NLC is the voice for America’s 19,000 cities and towns. Many of the larger cities are not very active in NLC, and the organization represents many smaller communities. Reflecting that, NLC has historically been liberal to centrist in its orientation, and has focused on issues that are basic for all cities, like transportation funding and preserving the tax exemption for municipal bonds.
NLC has become more assertively progressive in the last decade, however. After years of careful discussion and consensus building, NLC endorsed comprehensive immigration reform and made it one of our three top legislative priorities for 2013. In 2012 we elected our first Latina President, Mayor Marie Lopez Rogers of Avondale, Arizona, whose grandfather was an immigrant farmworker. Board elections in the last two years have brought in a group of new progressive representatives — I was part of the first wave in 2011.
We do have a history of taking modest stands in favor of LGBT issues. As long ago as 1992, NLC adopted a resolution encouraging the military to end discrimination against gays, lesbians and bisexuals, and in 1998 NLC took a position in support of hate-crimes legislation. In 2004 NLC adopted a resolution affirming local authority over marriage.
Hoping that NLC was ready to take the next step towards equality, at the 2012 National Convention (the usual venue for adopting new policy), the FAIR Committee asked the organization to support marriage equality. However, faced with opposition from some cities, who threatened to walk out of the organization if it was adopted, the officers pulled the resolution from the agenda, promising to bring it back in 2013 after more time for consultation.
Many of us we disappointed with that decision, and the FAIR Committee decided to appeal to the Board to act at our June meeting, an unusual but not unprecedented step.
No one on the Board expressed opposition to marriage equality, although a couple of members indicated that they would abstain because of their religious beliefs. However there was an intense debate about whether the Board should take action. Opponents questioned whether Board action was appropriate on an issue of such controversy, or whether we should follow the normal process of going to the 2013 Convention. They suggested that action would cost us members, and asked whether the issue was really of central importance from a City perspective. And they wondered whether we should take more time to review the Supreme Court decision to see if the resolution was really necessary.
Supporters listened carefully and responded respectfully — it was a model for how to conduct a deliberative debate. Some supporters were convinced that delay was appropriate, and the key vote came on a motion to table, which failed on a 13 to 13 tie vote. One member who had religious concerns chose not to vote on the motion to hold — as he explained to me later, he did not believe that his religious beliefs should prevent the other members of the Board from taking action.
After the motion to hold failed, the resolution was approved with 18 yes votes and 9 abstentions. The key operative clause states:
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the National League of Cities supports the full inclusion of all families in the life of our nation, with equal respect, responsibility, and protection under the law, including the freedom to marry. We support the overturning of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and oppose discriminatory constitutional amendments and other attempts to deny the freedom to marry.
This is not the last word in this story. The Board decision can be appealed by opponents at the 2013 Convention (to be held in Seattle this November!). However, we intend to work hard to make sure that the Convention affirms the policy, and we believe that we will have the votes to do so.
It was an honor to play a modest role in this important step on the road towards marriage equality, and I am proud not only of the willingness of the Board to step up to the plate on this issue, but of the great model we offered of how a group of individuals with different perspectives can honestly and thoughtfully deliberate on a divisive issue, and ultimately come to a deliberative conclusion while respecting differing points of view.
It is an indication of how rapidly the idea of equality is spreading through our land that the supporters were not just from the big cities like Seattle and St. Paul, where there are active LGBT communities and a history of endorsing LGBT rights. Key affirmative votes were cast by city officials from places like Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Mountain View, California; Laramie, Wyoming; and Glendale, Arizona. Pride Day will be a great opportunity to celebrate many great achievements of the past year — and the NLC vote is one more step on this road.