The D.C. Council heard testimonies on Monday from residents hoping to either legalize same-sex marriage in the nation's capital or ban it.
More than 100 people attended the hearing on a bill, co-sponsored by 10 of the 13 council members, that would allow same-sex couples to wed in the District.
Councilmember Mary Cheh described the same-sex marriage issue as "the most important civil rights issue of our era."
"We have the opportunity to cast our votes for justice and fairness," she stated.
After viewing the long list of about 270 witnesses who signed up to testify, councilmember Tommy Wells said it seems as if the issue is between religious organizations and gay rights advocates.
But he stressed that the matter of "justice" and "equality" does not belong to only those two groups.
"We cannot in some way allow this debate to be marginalized between one group that says they represent a religious perspective and one group that says 'please, we want equal rights like everyone else," Wells said at the hearing. "This issue belongs to all of us."
Katherine Pearson-West, one of the witnesses and a traditional marriage supporter, said to label the issue a faith community vs. gay community conflict is "ridiculous."
"All of us have gay people in our families, or friends ... We love them," she said, "but that does that mean they're guaranteed the right of [or] entitled to marriage."
Though the hearing was held to give Washingtonians the opportunity to speak out on the divisive issue, Pearson-West accused the council of making a mockery of democracy.
"All of you have made up your mind. We're here just for window dressing," she charged. "You throw a bone to the religious community ... [but] everybody knows that once you get your foot in the door you're going to do whatever you can to make the ministers, the religious community, whatever, abide by your agenda."
Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who led the hearing, had stated before the testimonies were heard that he believes the D.C. Council represents the majority view among voters which is that of support for same-sex marriage.
He also repeated what most members of the council have been stating for months – that they would not allow a referendum on the issue.
"A matter of fairness and justice should not be subject to a referendum," Mendelson stated.
Last month, supporters of traditional marriage filed with the D.C. Board of Elections a ballot initiative to define marriage in the District of Columbia as between one man and one woman. They have argued that all they want is for the people to be able to exercise their right to have a say and vote on a public policy issue.
"I firmly believe that this legislation is going in the wrong direction," said Bishop Harry R. Jackson, Jr. of Stand for Marriage DC, noting that there is a real possibility that the council will deny the people their right on what he considers the largest public policy issue of their time.
"What happens in our capital will set a new tone in the culture wars of the nation," Jackson, who pastors Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., stated earlier.
Meanwhile, several African American witnesses expressed their outrage over the comparison of same-sex marriage to civil rights.
"I resent anyone who compares same-sex unions to slavery," Bernestine Copeland stated bluntly in a testimony that was full of Bible references.
The District of Columbia has recognized domestic partnerships since 1992. Earlier this year, the D.C. Council unanimously voted to recognize gay and lesbian marriages performed elsewhere.
The hearing on the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009 will resume on Nov. 2.