After spirited citizens’ comments, motion to protest AG’s decision not to defend same-sex marriage ban dies as board fails to second
People who live in Rappahannock County — for generations, or just for warm-weather weekends over the past decade — can be said to share at least one common belief: It’s a special place.
Depending on who you are, that specialness could be based on Rappahannock’s extraordinary and purposefully preserved scenic beauty, or its ever-widening possibilities for the pursuit of the Good Life. Or its more cost-effective, down-to-earth opportunities to connect to the land, and to nature — and to people who just know what to do when a raccoon moves into your attic.
Often enough, that specialness is clearly based on the quality and passion of its public discourse.
At Monday’s (Feb. 3) mid-afternoon meeting of the county board of supervisors, a standing-room-only event attended by more than 50 citizens, more than half those in attendance stood and urged the five-member board to either accept or reject a resolution presented to them late last week by Jackson District supervisor Ron Frazier — which would have protested newly elected Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s decision last month to not defend the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and which directed the county administrator to file an ethics complaint against Herring for what amounts to his dereliction of duty.
Marriage Challenge, heading South
The federal judge who heard the case against Virginia’s 2006 ban on same-sex marriage Feb. 4 in Norfolk said a decision could come quickly.
Twenty-five citizens stood to urge that they reject it, or let Frazier’s motion to adopt it die for lack of a second — the latter being what they eventually did, an hour and 15 minutes after the public comment session began.
Seven citizens rose to strongly urge the supervisors to “make a statement” and publicly chastise Herring (the resolution not having any legal power behind it) for putting his “political and personal views” ahead of doing his job.
One supervisor — Frazier — defended the resolution, calling passage of it the only way for the supervisors themselves, who all swore an oath similar to Herring’s to protect and defend Virginia’s constitution, to remain true to it.
The other four supervisors did not speak (with the exception of chairman Roger Welch, who maintained order, sternly reminding speakers to address the board rather than anyone in the audience with whom they disagreed, and kept things from ever getting out of hand).
Hampton district supervisor Bryant Lee did pipe up to say, after the public comment ended, “Oh, and thank you for all the phone calls,” which got a big laugh, each supervisor having admitted earlier that they’d received dozens of calls and emails from constituents before the meeting.
Unsaid, by the supervisors or anyone else present Monday, was mention of the county’s longstanding (and growing) gay population, or the fact that some of Rappahannock’s most successful and enduring businesses are owned by those who strongly believe you can marry whomever you want, gender being beside the point.
They heard often that the issue, and Frazier’s resolution, were “not your business.” They heard several say the issue was not about same-sex marriage but “about the law.” They heard at least two speakers describe marriage between a man and woman as a God-given law and at least one claim of bigotry.
“Gentlemen,” said Bill Dietel of Flint Hill, “we’ve lived here now almost 34 years, and . . . there are two things that distinguish the citizenship of Rappahannock County: the natural beauty of the place in which we live, and secondly, and to my mind more importantly, the care we have for one another. We have genuine political differences of opinion. But it’s been remarkable that those differences here get played out at the ballot box — they do not get played out in the deliberations of our duly elected county supervisors.
“To approve the resolution before you is to open Pandora’s Box,” he said. “And it will be a fearsome job to close it. This will attract national attention. Let those who feel as Mr. Frazier does go to the ballot box, go to the political process, but not involve these people in this community who care for one another. That is not your responsibility.
“Once you take a stand on a political issue that’s as divisive as this is, you’ll be on the hot seat for every other one that comes along. I beg you to turn it down.”
“I’m not sure we want to get back into the position of Massive Resistance,” said Daphne Hutchinson of Washington, making a reference to Virginia Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr.’s campaign in the late 1950s to to unite other white politicians and leaders in an effort to prevent school integration. “We all know how that went. It was wrong then, it would be wrong now. And there’s plenty of precedent in Virginia for attorney generals coming into office and refusing to prosecute or enforce laws that they deem unconstitutional.”
“Please defeat this resolution,” she added. “I don’t want to see us on the ‘Colbert Report.’ ”
“This is not about gay marriage,” said Hurley Smith of Hampton District. “This is about the rule of law. I think if we focus on that, we might come to the truth of this. The attorney general has sworn an oath before God, and before the people of Virginia that he would protect and defend the constitution of Virginia. All of it — no caveats, no exceptions.”
Smith compared Herring’s actions to “a criminal attorney, in the middle of a trial, failing to continue the defense of his client, declaring him guilty — and joining the prosecution,” and called on the supervisors to carry out their own “affirmative duty to do something . . . Clearly the attorney general’s oath means nothing to him. I hope your oath means something to you.”
“I’m quite surprised to see a resolution of this nature before the board,” said Robert Weinberg, longtime attorney and Slate Mills resident and chair of the county’s board of zoning appeals, who defended Herring’s actions. “He has made in good faith a determination on an issue that is quite certain to come before the U.S. Supreme Court, whether in the case pending in Virginia or one of the numerous other cases pending around the country. And he has taken the position that the rights of citizens of Virginia to marry a partner of their choice, of either sex, are threatened by the current provisions of the Virginia constitution.
“Whether that is correct or incorrect remains for the United States Supreme Court eventually to determine. And the court signaled where it is likely to go on this issue when it invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act, which had provided that same-sex partners could not get the benefits of marriage that were given to people who were married, a man to a woman.”
“Basically you’re being asked to vote on a religious issue, not a civil issue,” said Ron Makela of Amissville.
“Let me try to give you a little different take on things,” said Terry Dixon of Castleton, who noted that Herring’s actions put a matter settled by a statewide referendum into the hands of a court. “If we allow our courts to overturn the [2006 “natural marriage”] amendment . . . we’re circumventing the will of the people.
“Now we have 25-acre zoning in this county,” Dixon added. “But what if a developer comes in, as land starts to go away in Loudoun and Prince William, which it is. A developer comes in and puts a contract on a 50-acre parcel up on 211 and comes into this courtroom, and says, ‘You know, it’s just not fair that I’m only allowed to build two houses on this 50-acre parcel. I really need to build 100, like what they allow me to do in Prince William and Loudoun.’
“And what if the courts approve that, and we lose our 25-acre density because we allow the courts to go over what your board of supervisors has decided is our zoning law, and we all approve of? The courts can overturn that.”
“We’ve managed to keep party politics largely out of our deliberations here, no matter what our personal inclination is,” said Monica Worth of Sperryville. “I think that whatever respect and love we show each other in a community like this, that makes this community such a special place . . . should be shown to every last citizen in this community. So please, either let it die or defeat this.”
“We know what the problem is, just what we’re talking about, and no one has said it yet — homophobia,” said Philip Rosemond, who runs Mountainside Dance Center in Washington, and who said his business suffers when kids are heard saying dance programs “are for sissies.” “Virginia, like many states, supports homophobia. And all our attorney general is saying is, ‘I am not going to support that.’
“Because it directly affects me and my business,” he added, “even if I was homophobic, I’d have to be against this resolution. Fortunately I’m not homophobic. I say fortunately because it’s just not an ethical way of being. Forget morality for a moment — it’s not ethical. Vote for this and you compromise your ethics. And your morality.”
Said Greg Ludlow of Stonewall-Hawthorne District: “I’m a little surprised no one has quoted the 14th amendment. It seems to me that people are accusing the attorney general of somehow violating the law. But which law? As another gentleman pointed out, United States law trumps state law.”
“Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court trumps the state,” said Jeffrey Knight of Washington. “But that hasn’t happened yet. We have this in our state constitution, and it should be defended by our chief law enforcement officer. I mean it’s just that simple. If you peel away the issue, and just talk about the law, and how our attorney general should handle his new position in the context of the state constitution, it’s a pretty easy decision.”
Thom Pellikaan of Woodville, responding to another speaker who said she was cheered by the large attendance, said “We don’t have a lot of reasons to come more often — but it’s when we’re trying to be divided. There’s issues they’re throwing at us that they’re trying to divide one part of society from another part of society. I’m so proud of the people who have spoken today.”
Pellikaan leaned forward and addressed Hurley Smith. “You’re very right on some of your remarks here,” he said. “But . . . you are wrong.”
Welch again reminded the crowd that “we can’t start talking to someone else.”
James Pittman of Amissville likened the attorney general’s actions to “our Sheriff Connie Smith, if she was told by a judge to go out and arrest someone, deciding that she wasn’t going to do it, because she didn’t think he was guilty . . . What I’m saying is, attorney general, do your job.”
“Where in the constitution does it give the majority the right to take away the rights of a minority?” asked Henry Gorfein of Washington. “The system was designed with checks and balances that allow the courts to override the legislature when its laws take away the constitutional rights of any group of citizens.”
“We don’t have a whole lot of clout,” said Don Loock of Amissville. “And there are times when we do need to lobby before the state on issues that are really important to this county — school funding, roads, fire and rescue issues. I think we could be spending the small amount of political capital that we do have in Rappahannock on things that are important to the whole of the county.”
Toward the end of the hour, Evelyn Kerr of Castleton stood and, admitting that “I feel very distressed about this whole issue,” spoke of other out-of-state groups that are spending millions of dollars in Virginia to push social agendas that are unacceptable to Christians.
“Planned Parenthood is an okay social agenda, right? But fighting this type of thing in our state, in our country, is not. You’ve got 1 to 2 percent of the population. The gentleman just talked about ‘majority.’ We haven’t had majority rules in this country for decades. Decades. It’s minority rule that we’re looking at. And this is minority rule. One percent, two percent of the people that come in, and show up, and their voices are heard, and . . . what?
“I urge you to pass this resolution, I feel strongly about it, I think it’s worthwhile. I think it’s Rappahannock County standing up for something that we believe in. I think it’s Christians standing up for their faith. That marriage is between one man and one woman. That’s it. That’s the way it’s been from the beginning. And I hope and pray to God that it will be that way to the end.”
“I wasn’t going to speak today,” said Alan Zuschlag of Amissville. “I felt moved to speak. Because I never heard such bigotry in this assembly. I was married in a church, a Christian church, just down the road, on this same block, a couple of months ago. I was married to another man, Ms. Kerr, and it was a Christian ceremony, with a Christian minister preaching the sermon and blessing the union. And I take offense as a Christian if you characterize Christianity as anything else.
“But this is not about Christianity,” he said. “This is about the board of supervisors, and what their role is, and clearly their role has nothing to do with this resolution.”
“What gives anyone the right to feel like God makes somebody inferior to them, morally?” asked Ben Jones of Washington. “God doesn’t make mistakes. He makes some people different. And our greatness is in recognizing those differences as Americans, and as citizens, and as neighbors.”
Frazier spoke last, before his motion was met with silence by colleagues Welch, Lee, Mike Biniek and Chris Parrish.
“Nobody contacted me and said, will you do this,” he said. “I got to thinking, and it just so upset me that our state leaders could just walk away from their duties.”
Frazier read through sections of the state constitution, ticking off sections — “free exercise of religion . . . rights of victims, freedom of speech . . . right to assemble . . . petition your government. You don’t like them?” He balled up the paper and tossed it at the judges podium behind the board. “That’s what you’re doing. You have an extremist in office in Richmond.”