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More than 60 ministers, rabbis and other faith leaders in Virginia were left in limbo earlier this week as they waited for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether it would issue a stay in the case of Bostic v. Schaefer, a case challenging the commonwealth’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, also known as the Marshall-Newman Amendment.
The ban on performing or recognizing same-sex marriages in Virginia, recognizing out-of-state legal marriages, or any form of relationship that emulates marriage was previously overturned by a federal judge in February, who ruled that the ban was unconstitutional. Although that judge, Arenda L. Wright Allen, issued a stay on her order, the case was appealed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which voted 2-1 on Aug. 13 to uphold Allen’s ruling.
Opponents of same-sex marriage, including Prince William County Clerk of Court Michele McQuigg, as well as the office of Attorney General Mark Herring, a marriage equality supporter, asked the Supreme Court to issue a stay until the case can be appealed and decided by the full court. Barring a stay, which would have to have been issued by Chief Justice John Roberts, who oversees the 4th Circuit, same-sex marriages would be able to start on the morning of Thursday, Aug. 21.
In the run-up to Thursday’s deadline, 66 clergy from various denominations, many affiliated with the group People of Faith for Equality in Virginia (POFEV), signed up to officiate any potential weddings for gay and lesbian couples. Forty-nine of those clergy had said they were willing to appear at local courthouses to help with marriage ceremonies that were likely to occur if a stay had not been granted.
“I think they’re going to grant the stay, and I’d be surprised if they don’t,” Dr. Rev. Robin Gorsline, president of POFEV, said on Monday. He added that many of the POFEV-affiliated clergy had not made concrete plans due to the uncertainty over whether or when the stay would be issued.
Gorsline and his partner, Jonathan Lebolt, were also left in limbo. Although the two had participated in a public commitment ceremony in front of family and friends in 1999 while they were living in Brooklyn, N.Y., the couple has not yet gotten married, hoping to wed in Virginia. Gorsline noted that Aug. 21, the day on which marriages would be legal if no stay was issued, was the anniversary of his and Lebolt’s commitment ceremony.
As of press time Tuesday, Gorsline said POFEV was not planning to hold any events or rallies if the stay was issued, saying it made no point to call attention to something that didn’t happen.
“What is more likely, if there is a stay, then that just means we have more work to do,” Gorsline said, noting that his organization was going to continue holding “witnesses to love,” or demonstrations outside of county courthouses and the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond designed to show support for marriage equality and call upon those with political power to repeal the commonwealth’s discriminatory ban.
Rev. David Ensign, of Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Arlington, was one of 31 clergy in Northern Virginia who agreed to perform same-sex marriages, noting that his church has been performing them for years despite the state’s refusal to recognize such marriages as valid. Ensign himself performed his first same-sex wedding 10 years ago, and his first legal wedding last March in the District for two of his longtime church members. But he says he’s seen a sea change in the larger population.
“What’s changed for us is that we’re no longer alone anymore,” Ensign said. “The people are ahead of the politicians on this, especially in terms of the Virginia General Assembly. They’re definitely not in step with younger voters who will be deciding what the General Assembly looks like in future years.”
Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael, of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Sterling, also volunteered to perform same-sex weddings at the Loudoun County Courthouse should they ever become legal. Sammler-Michael says that her church, too, has been holding same-sex ceremonies for years despite the statutory and constitutional bans. Leading up to Thursday, she said she was “watching intently” and checking email updates to see if a stay was going to be issued.
“The big hope is that things might happen sooner than we thought they might,” Sammler-Michael says of how rapidly the challenge to the marriage ban has moved through the courts. “I’ve wanted to see equality for as long as I’ve been living in Virginia. As a minister, I’m just glad to support it however I can.”