The path to legalizing gay marriage in the District of Columbia begins Tuesday as the city's new gay marriage recognition law takes effect. The law recognizes the marriages of gay and lesbian couples performed elsewhere.

City Council members approved the new ordinance in a 12 to 1 vote in May, with former Mayor Marion Barry the lone dissenter, and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat, signed the bill.

Council leaders openly acknowledge their next move is to legalize gay marriage in the District, an idea that has not sat well with Bishop Harry Jackson, the pastor leading the fight against gay marriage in the city.

Jackson quickly rallied opposition, forming the Stand 4 Marriage D.C. Coalition, a group of mostly black ministers. Days after the council acted, the ministers gathered to protest the council's actions and announced they would repeal the measure with a referendum.

“It's a declaration of war,” he said. “We are sending a clear message that this is going to be fought every step of the way.”

A referendum in the District cannot violate the city's Human Rights Act of 1977 that prohibits discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation. Whether the referendum would proceed depends on the city's Board of Election and Ethics.

At a packed meeting in early June, the board heard four hours of testimony from gay marriage backers and foes.

“All we are asking for is a public debate,” said the Rev. Dale Wafer, a minister with the Harvest, a religious community in Northeast Washington.

But other opponents didn't mince words, and unleashed a fury of anti-gay sentiment.

Wearing a t-shirt for the anti-gay website that read “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Morals are Worse than Animals,” Minister Leroy Swailes, who most likely owns the anonymously registered website, railed against being gay.

Swailes testified that discrimination against gay men and lesbians is “positive discrimination.”

“Me as a black man, when they discriminated against me, I came out of my mother's womb, like I didn't have a choice, that was a negative discrimination. If you discriminate against a homosexual, that's a positive,” Swailes, who went on to call children's books like King and King that explain gay and lesbian relationships pedophile books, said.

He also argued that gay men and lesbians are inhuman and therefore not eligible for human rights: “Everybody should have human rights, but you have to be human. Human means you deal with the opposite sex.”

Gay rights activists Philip E. Pannell accused opponents of “advocating for a popular vote that will give vent to public homophobia.”

“Unfortunately, in our society, it is still acceptable in many polite circles to vilify and victimize gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people,” he testified. “Hopefully, we in the District of Columbia will not have to be subjected to a campaign of misunderstanding, intolerance, fear, bigotry and hatred towards a minority group.”

The board voted to block the referendum the next week, saying it would violate the law and discriminate against gay men and lesbians. Determined opponents sought relief from the courts.

Last Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Judith Retchin upheld the panel's decision. Her 15-page ruling chided opponents: “At bottom, the harm about which petitioners complain is not based on a denial of the right to referendum. Rather, they simply disagree with legislation enacted by our duly-elected [city] council. A citizen's disagreement with constitutionally sound legislation, whether based on political, religious or moral views, does not rise to the level of an actionable harm.”

Retchin also denied petitioner's request to stay the July 7 start of the law, leaving opponents out of legal venues. Except to attempt to amend the law.

“We will definitely fight it – if that's the case – yes,” Jackson told gay weekly the Washington Blade.

Six mostly New England states have legalized gay marriage: Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine and Iowa.

District of Columbia lawmakers would like to add their city to that list. How quickly that happens depends not only on Bishop Jackson's resolve, but also on whether Congress is willing to fight city officials.

Because laws passed by the District are subject to a 30-day review period by Congress, before committing to gay marriage, the marriage recognition law was set afloat as a trial balloon. Several Republican congressmen, led by Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, objected to the law, but Democrats refused to join the chorus.

Tuesday's start of the law then is a symbolic nod from Congress, a gay marriage approval, no matter how tenuous.