Church Ceremony Celebrates Gay Pairs
Straight Couples Join in Vows of Commitment at Protest Event in Arlington

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 23, 2006

In a gesture of love that has become in Virginia, as elsewhere, a gesture of political protest, about 60 gay and heterosexual couples, some young and others who've been together 25 years or more, reaffirmed their vows of commitment yesterday in a ceremony at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington.

Coming days after a Maryland judge ruled that a state law banning same-sex marriage is discriminatory and as Virginia legislators consider a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, the ceremony had an air of celebration and defiance.

Singing "There Is More Love Somewhere," the couples, mostly church members, walked in procession into the sunny outdoors and gathered before a banner that read, "marriage is a civil right."

"Whether you are married in the eyes of the law or only in the eyes of your family, this ceremony is for you," the Rev. Richard Nugent told the crowd. He then asked questions that might be unsettling to some of those who say same-sex unions threaten the sanctity of marriage.

"Will you continue to respect each other, love each other, hold each other accountable?" Nugent asked.

"I will," said Diane Ullius to Rhonda Buckner, Pat Joyner to Becca Lovelace, and Diane Dorius to Andy Gasparich.

After the ceremony, Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette (D), a member of the church, said that to be gay in America in 2006 is to be political.

"This is not our choice," he said. "It's been thrust upon us. . . . We yearn for the day when these gestures are not viewed as threatening. We are not there yet. Our state has been slow to understand, slow to shed its fear."

Virginia is one of 43 states that do not recognize rights of same-sex couples. A bill passed last year added a ban on recognizing same-sex civil unions or partnership arrangements to the state's Affirmation of Marriage Act. Republican legislators say a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage is necessary to protect those laws from court challenges. The question could be put to voters in November.

In light of that, and in light of religious principles that include working toward equality, the Arlington congregation decided it was important to stake out a clear, public position on the matter.

"To put it bluntly," Nugent said in his sermon, "this amendment is mean-spirited, arises out of political expediency and fuels ungrounded fear and bigotry."

To a large extent, the ceremony in the rectangular, concrete-and-glass church was also about demonstrating a religious ethic that is counter to the more conservative one preached from many pulpits.

"We've been saying for years that hate is not a family value," said Ullius, 58, who reaffirmed her vows to her partner of 25 years, Buckner, 54. "Discrimination is not a family value, and inequality is not a family value."

The couple, who live in Arlington, said they worry that the amendment under consideration would interfere with their ability to make medical decisions for each other, with hospital visitation, with their wills and with dozens of other matters.

At the same time, Buckner said that she feels momentum building and that in five years or so, gay men and lesbians will win the rights afforded to married couples.

"There is no way the world can turn back now," she said. "They can make it miserable in the meantime, but they can't change progress."

For others who took part, the ceremony was only secondarily a political statement; primarily, it was a rare opportunity to declare their love in a public way and to feel accepted by a community.

"If I had a wedding," said Joyner, 55, of Alexandria, "I don't know how many of my family members would show up."

She is generally shy, she said, and not prone to activism. But when the time came yesterday, she marched outside, joined hands with her partner of five years, Lovelace, and in the cool afternoon said, "I will," in front of a congregation that clapped for them.

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