NOM's New HQ

Group opposing marriage equality makes the move to D.C.

by Will O'Bryan
Published on August 20, 2009, 12:00am | Comments

If you missed the "Gathering Storm" ads on TV, there's still a good chance you caught the parody on YouTube. Whichever version you may have caught, or not, the starting point was the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), whose latest campaign includes footage of notorious beauty queen Carrie Prejean telling a national audience, "I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense." 

With Maggie Gallagher, president of the Manassas, Va.-based Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, as president and Brian S. Brown as executive director, NOM formed in 2007 as a Princeton, N.J.-based group "protecting marriage and the faith communities that sustain it." And now they're moving to the District.

"There is an office in Princeton, but we're moving our main office here," says Brown, who relocated from California in June following NOM's success with Proposition 8. "This is a work in progress. We will be moving employees down here. Right now, I'm the main employee located here. Maggie Gallagher is also coming down."

While Brown emphasizes that NOM's move to D.C. is primarily to bolster the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) -- the 1996 law defining marriage at the federal level as the union of one man and one woman only -- there has been some movement at the local level. Brown, for example, is the treasurer of Stand 4 Marriage D.C., the group trying to block marriage equality locally. For context, he holds similar titles in other locales.

Currently, D.C. allows domestic partnerships and recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. A referendum effort to block that recognition was stopped in June by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics on the grounds that the city's Human Rights Act bans putting civil rights to a vote. But a ballot-initiative plan launched by ANC 5A Commissioner Robert "Bob" King now seeks to put the definition of marriage as one man and one woman to D.C. voters in 2010.

Brown thinks that effort has a shot at success, and says NOM's arrival in D.C. may help.

"We have been helping with the referendum -- now initiative -- effort," he says, pointing to a NOM radio campaign. "Proponents of same-sex marriage are doing everything they can to stop people from voting. The arguments they're putting forward to stop a vote in the District are fundamentally flawed.

"If the referendum contradicts the Human Rights Act, then is the Council currently contradicting the Human Rights Act by not having same-sex marriage in the District?" he asks with a laugh. "It doesn't make any sense!"

Rev. Monique Ellison, who has been working with an unaffiliated group attending ANC meetings to debunk arguments against marriage equality, says NOM's arrival should at least keep the gay community and its allies on their toes.

"The fact that they are here makes it easier if they want to get involved, to organize here," she says. "It tells me that we have to be very intentional about organizing ourselves."

Just as Ellison is wary, King says he's grateful for NOM's arrival.

"I'm glad they're coming," he says. "They're the cavalry and we're stuck at the Alamo. We don't want them to arrive late when we're all dead."

If King is feeling outgunned in this fight, Brown is not surprised. King argues in an Aug. 18 letter to the members of the City Council and others that a Council hearing or vote on marriage equality would not be fair to District voters. And Brown says the DCBOEE didn't give those opposing marriage equality a fair shot when the board blocked the referendum.

"For anyone at the hearing, the bias was so palpable it was absolutely clear that the Board of Elections had made up their mind before they ever heard the arguments being put forward," Brown argues. "I think that was pretty clear from being in that room, and the way some of the people who stood up to speak on behalf of allowing the people to vote were treated."

Regardless of how marriage equality plays out in the District, Brown says he's hoping the debate will remain civil, explaining that NOM staff have elsewhere encountered threats -- a pipe bomb to be thrown at their office, for example -- that go well beyond the level of "hate mail."

"A core part of the beauty of the American experiment is that we can disagree -- vehemently and fundamentally -- over core first principles, over core issues, but we can do it in such a way that we're civil," says Brown. " We have a real conflict. Let's not just dismiss those people that are on the other side of the conflict as haters or bigots. Are there people like that on the side supporting marriage? Of course there are. Are there people who hate me for what I do? Of course there are. But I don't think we advance as a country or that either side will have a meaningful role in this if the way we're doing it is personally attacking each other." 

While civility may or may not prevail, crafty politics may still be the rule, as Ellison discovered in her attempt to deliver a marriage-equality presentation at a recent meeting of King's ANC 5A. She says she and her small group were told they would have half an hour to do their presentation, though it was then cancelled as an inappropriate topic for an ANC meeting.

"We ended up spending the 30 minutes we would've been on the agenda discussing with the commissioners whether it was appropriate," she recalls, noting that the ANC voted unanimously against the marriage-equality presentation. "Then we find out later that Bob King has sent around this letter."

And as King wrote in his next letter, Aug. 18, marriage is now an entirely appropriate subject for ANCs: "No public policy area is excluded from the purview of the ANCs," he concluded. "I repeat, no public policy area is excluded from the purview of the ANCs."