Faith Key in Marriage Debate

Faith Key in Marriage Debate

Thirty-nine years ago in Virginia, Reston resident Hank Blakely, an African-American, would have been prohibited from marrying Lillian Christman, his wife of 25 years.

Knowing that interracial marriages were illegal in Virginia until a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Blakely sees parallels to the current debate over a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions.

"The obscenity of that law still today makes me so angry I can feel it. It would have stopped me from marrying my wife," Blakely said. "The parallel to me is inescapable. We need to defeat this pernicious, mean-spirited, evil thing that people call the 'marriage amendment.'"

Blakely was speaking at a recent gathering at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, a congregation that is actively opposing the Nov. 7 statewide referendum on the proposed amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

On both sides of the debate, faith communities like Blakely's Unitarian church are expected to play a pivotal role in the battle over the same-sex marriage amendment.

The Commonwealth Coalition, a group of church congregations, businesses and individuals workng with the gay advocacy group, Equality Virginia, in opposing the amendment.

On the other side, the Family Foundation of Virginia, a traditional values organization based in Richmond, leads a similar coalition pushing passage of the amendment.

"At the end of the day, this constitutional amendment is about marriage," said Victoria Cobb, executive director of the Family Foundation of Virginia. "The majority of Virginians believe marriage is between a man and a woman."

THOUGH THE opposing campaigns will press harder as election day draws near, both sides have already started appealing to sympathetic faith communities across Virginia.

In addition to the recent forum at the Unitarian Universality Church in Reston, the Commonwealth Coalition kicked off its campaign at the Metropolitan Community Church of Northern Virginia in Fairfax.

"Too often it seems the other side has the 'moral authority,'Ó said the Rev. Kharma Amos, the church's pastor. "Our opposition to the amendment comes from our core religious values: love of our neighbors, tolerance and freedom. To support this amendment, it's incompatible with my Christian faith."

Claire Guthrie-Gastanaga, the Commonwealth Coalition's campaign manager, said the anti-amendment side is stitching together an alliance of Jewish, Catholic and other faith communities that see same-sex marriage as a social justice matter.

"Not every person of faith is on one side of this issue," Guthrie-Gastanaga said. "We're not ceding that side at all."

Guthrie-Gastanaga said the coalition's internal polling indicates that 80 percent of Virginians wish the legislature would spend its time on something else and 59 percent of Virginians support civil unions.

Most Virginians, however, do not realize that the proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage would also ban civil unions and domestic partnerships, potentially affecting legal arrangements between all unmarried couples, Guthrie-Gastanaga said.

"The conventional wisdom is that we're going to get our butts kicked, 70-30," she said. "But I'm not a big believer in conventional wisdom"

PROPONENTS of the same-sex marriage ban, meanwhile, have addressed several conservative faith communities in Northern Virginia, including a Morman congregation at the Tysons Corner Marriott late last month.

"It's very simple from the faith community's point of view," said Pastor Jack Stagman, of the Loudoun Church Alliance, a group of several churches in Loudoun County actively supporting the same-sex marriage ban. "It's clear in the Scriptures: The definition of marriage is between one man and one woman. It's been that way for 2,000 years."

Stagman, a Purcellville resident who emigrated to the United States from South Africa, said he worries that if gays are allowed to marry, Virginia will face God's wrath.

"God instituted marriage in the first place," Stagman said. "If you go against the commandments of God, there are going to be consequences. We would see the complete moral decay of this nation."

Last Saturday in Gainesville, representatives from the Family Foundation met with a group of African-American Baptist pastors about the constitutional amendment, Cobb said.

African-American churches, Cobb said, will be a major focus of the Family Foundation's campaign's to turn out voters Nov. 7.

"The African-American community generally supports traditional marriage," Cobb said. "A lot of these folks are Democrats and don't support much of the Republicans' platform, with the exception of this issue."

SEVERAL NORTHERN Virginia politicians who are backing the amendment said they view the issue as cultural, not religious.

"This is simply a matter of Virginia saying it should not have to recognize a marriage or civil union of a homosexual couple," said Sen. Jay O'Brien (R-39). "The people of Virginia believe there is only one thing in Virginia that is marriage and that is between one man and one woman."

O'Brien said he has gay and lesbian acquaintances, but they understand he is not trying to deny them rights, but merely to ensure the traditional institution of marriage is protected.

"I'm not one for gay bashing," he said. "No one I know is engaging in that. It's the nature of marriage itself that needs to be preserved."

O'Brien said he believes a marriage between a man and woman is better suited for raising children.

Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-34) said she supports the amendment because "activist judges" in states like Maryland and Massachusetts have said gays and lesbians should have the right to marriage.

"Society is not yet ready to accept same-sex marriage," she said, pointing out that 19 states have already amended their constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

WITH THE ONE exception of Del. Stephen Shannon (D-35), Democratic lawmakers across Northern Virginia are united in their opposition to the amendment.

At the Commonwealth Coalition's campaign kick-off at a Fairfax church recently, a parade of Democratic legislators stood up and slammed the proposed amendment.

"This year is probably one of the most important for human rights that Virginians will have to vote on," said Del. Jim Scott (D-53).

Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) said her personal belief of equality for all Virginians prevents her from supporting the amendment.

"I will vote against it because it will turn Virginia into the kind of state I'm not comfortable in," she said. "It doesn't represent my personal or religious values. It makes me sick."