Standing before a trim, white, clapboard house off Lafayette Boulevard in Norfolk last week, friends and supporters of gay rights cheered loudly as two same sex couples approached a front-yard podium to celebrate their legal victory in having Virginia’s gay marriage ban overturned.
The night before, U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen, citing Abraham Lincoln and the unfairness of the state’s previous ban on interracial marriage, had declared Virginia’s ban unconstitutional.
It had been supported by the state’s conservatives and also by 57 percent of voters who approved a constitutional amendment in 2006 declaring marriage as only for men and women. Popular opinion, however, appears to have shifted
It was an historic moment on a par with federal courts overturning racial segregation and other blunt violations of human rights. Seventeen states now allow gay marriage and a host of lawsuits tend to push overturning bans. Virginia is the first Southern state to do so.
Immediately, hard-right politicians such as Prince William County’s Bob Marshall called for the judge’s impeachment just as some demanded the ouster of the new state Attorney General, Mark Herring, for, correctly, refusing to defend the marriage ban.
The situation represents a huge shift in philosophy for the state. For years, Virginia has been dominated by conservative thinking that is enormously contradictory.
As Richmond Times Dispatch columnist Jeff Schapiro points out this morning, the tension is between promoting limited government and individual freedom in some areas (little regulation of business and politicians) and badly suppressing individual rights in cases such as marriage and abortion.
Just as history was being made in Norfolk federal court, the General Assembly was putting the finishing touches on useless new rules that do next to nothing to police Virginia’s incredibly lax governance of gift giving and political donations.
This comes after the state’s reputation was badly stained by the first-ever indictment of a former governor (Robert F. McDonnell) on federal corruption charges. So much for “the Virginia way” that touts Thomas Jefferson and the entire cadre for freedom.
I have always been frustrated by the state’s bi-polar attitudes about individual rights. Not a Virginian by birth, I was glad to leave the state in 1983 after reporting from it for about eight years. I was sick and tired of its genuflecting before big business on environment and labor issues. Little-regulated Big Business, after all, had given Virginians such presents the Kepone ecological disaster.
Years later, I was passing through Virginia from New York driving from New York to visit my parents in North Carolina. We stopped at a Denny’s and were told by a waitress that we could not order our cheeseburgers medium rare because that’s what the legislature had ruled. More recently, I ended up shelling out a few hundred bucks because my daughter needed new contact lenses and state rules require unneeded yearly optical exams. Apparently that’s due to lobbying by the state eye-care industry.
The philosophical contradictions are finally catching up. Even though proponents of gay rights at the Norfolk press conference made a big deal about Virginia being the first “southern” state to confront ending the gay marriage ban, I am not so sure the state is really “Southern” any more. Continue reading