Reporting from Washington — The District of Columbia Council took a major step Tuesday toward joining New Hampshire, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and Massachusetts in legalizing same-sex marriage.
In the first of two votes, the council passed a bill 11 to 2.
Although the outcome was expected in the heavily Democratic city, the move remains controversial because of opposition from socially conservative churches.
"Today's vote is an important victory not only for the gay and lesbian community, but for everyone who supports equal rights," Councilman David A. Catania, who is gay, said in a statement. "Gays and lesbians bear every burden of citizenship and are entitled to every benefit and protection that the law allows."
The most vocal opposition came from the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl has warned that legalizing same-sex marriage would force the church's social services arm to scale back its efforts in the city.
The law, as passed Tuesday, would not make churches perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, but it would require employers doing business with the city, including churches, to provide health benefits for married same-sex couples.
Church officials said that providing those benefits would violate their religious beliefs.
"We really don't want to be in a position where we're being asked to abandon one part of our faith to be able to live out the other part," said Susan Gibbs, an archdiocese spokeswoman. "Our goal is to be able to provide the same level of services, but we have to be true to our faith."
Gibbs said the archdiocese was trying to work out a compromise allowing it to continue receiving city money to help provide social services, but exempting it from recognizing same-sex marriages.
In order to legalize same-sex marriage, the council must vote again to pass the bill, which is expected to occur Dec. 15. Once it is signed into law by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty as expected, it will be sent to Congress for review.
If Congress takes no action to block the law within 30 legislative days, same-sex marriage would become legal.
District politicians were optimistic that would happen.
"All the indications have been that they won't do anything," said Doxie McCoy, spokeswoman for council Chairman Vincent C. Gray.