The state of Virginia's travel and tourism motto since the late 1960s has been "Virginia is For Lovers." Central Atlantic Conference Minister of the United Church of Christ, the Rev. John Deckenback, would like to see that motto become more of a reality as a federal judge considers the merits of a case that could overturn the state's ban against same-sex marriage.
"Adding Virginia to the growing list of states where marriage for all couples is legal would be a great step in the overall movement, which is clearly gaining momentum nationwide," Deckenback said. "Virginia has long championed itself in advertising campaigns as being a 'state for lovers.' With marriage equality, the state could live up to its promise."
U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright heard arguments in the case on Feb. 4 and hopes to deliver her ruling as quickly as possible.
Should the judge deem the state's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, it's likely the ruling would be appealed to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. That's the similar path cases have taken in Utah and Oklahoma, where two federal judges ruled against both state's bans against gay marriage before the cases were appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
UCC pastors and members in Virginia are optimistic about a successful outcome in their state as they continue their advocacy on Valentine's Day.
The Rev. Kathyrn Dwyer, pastor at Rock Spring Congregational UCC in Arlington, Va., and her colleague the Rev. Mark Suriano will join their members and others in an interfaith Witness for Love event on Friday, Feb. 14. That day, same-gender couples will request marriage licenses or certificates from clerks at five northern Virginia courthouses.
"Several clergy will offer words of faith, we will sing a few songs, and pray together. Following this service, I will be marrying a same-gender couple in D.C.," said Dwyer. "Rock Spring is a strong advocate for marriage equality. We hope and pray that Virginia will finally see all Virginians as God sees them, as equally deserving of the fullest experience of life and love."
The attorneys for the plaintiffs challenging the state's ban, in effect since 2006, have already won a major victory for marriage equality. Ted Olson and David Boies successfully argued to the Supreme Court in March 2013 to overturn California's Proposition 8 that banned same-sex marriage in that state.
The Supreme Court's decisions last summer in ruling against the constitutionality of Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal law that previously denied benefits to legally married same-sex couples, brought on a wave of state and federal lawsuits in states that prohibit the freedom to marry.
Virginia attorney general Mark Herring recently flipped on the state's ban against same-sex marriage, saying he would no longer defend it in legal cases because he believes marriage is a fundamental right and LGBT couples are prohibited that right by the ban.
"I see this as an extension into the 'Deep South' of the whole effort," Deckenback said. "[It's] made somewhat easier by the trends, the Supreme Court's decision, and the diversification of Virginia – especially in and around the D.C. suburbs."
While with the Central Atlantic Conference, Deckenback has seen the marriage equality movement take shape in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.
"With the addition of Virginia, virtually all of the Central Atlantic Conference jurisdictions – from New Jersey to Richmond – would be inclusive," he said.
There are currently 17 states, (potentially 19 with Utah and Oklahoma) that recognize marriage equality in addition to the District of Columbia: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.
The UCC broke ground on LGBT equality by becoming the first mainline denomination to ordain an openly gay minister, the Rev. Bill Johnson, in 1972. Three decades later the UCC stepped to the front of the issue again, when the denomination became the first church to affirm marriage equality for all people regardless of their gender in 2005.