Arlington gay activist Lilli Vincenz just wanted to copy a film she made of the nation's first gay pride parade back in 1970. Tim Bono was just a small county businessman trying to run his film production company in line with his Christian values.
When Bono declined to make copies of Vincenz's work because he did not want to "partake in any gay agenda," she filed a discrimination complaint with the Arlington County Human Rights Commission -- and won.
But the local case has morphed into a cause celebre in the national blogosphere in recent days, raising the ire of conservatives who think that Bono's religious freedom is being violated.
Bono's attorney said he plans to file a lawsuit next week that would ask a court to decide the larger question of whether local ordinances prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation are legal not only in Arlington but also in neighboring Alexandria and other Virginia localities.
Arlington has had a provision in its human rights ordinance protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination since 1992.
"If there was a court case, you'd have a definitive ruling on whether we could enforce such a provision in the ordinance," Arlington County Attorney Stephen A. MacIsaac said. "Previously, it's not been tested."
Mathew D. Staver, an attorney with the conservative public interest law firm Liberty Counsel in Lynchburg, said Bono will not comply with the county's order to copy Vincenz's tape or pay to have someone else do it.
"We feel he has a right to produce what he chooses to produce," Staver said. "The commission has no right to force him to produce something that's objectionable to him."
Staver argues that Arlington's ordinance protecting homosexuals from discrimination is illegal, citing a 2002 state attorney general's opinion that said the Fairfax County School Board had no authority to amend its non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation without permission from the state legislature. Such opinions aren't binding but could be used as a basis for a court ruling later.
"It is the opinion of this office that without enabling legislation, no locality can include sexual discrimination in its non-discrimination policy," said J. Tucker Martin, a spokesman for state Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R). "If a locality chooses to act outside of its authority in any manner, it runs the risk of having a court strike the underlying ordinance."
Alexandria amended its human rights ordinance to include language protecting gays and lesbians in 1988 but now has little authority to provide a legal remedy aside from a $5,000 fine, according to Jean Niebauer in the city's human rights office.
A handful of smaller localities, such as Williamsburg and Charlottesville, have policies prohibiting such discrimination in municipal business.
The Arlington hubbub began last May, when Vincenz, 68, now a psychotherapist in the county, e-mailed Bono to ask him if he would duplicate two films of early gay rights protests she took in 1968 and 1970.
Vincenz had filmed the protests in Philadelphia and New York with a borrowed Bolex 16mm camera. Over the years, her footage has been included in PBS documentaries about gay rights pioneers and elsewhere.
"This struggle is dear to my heart," said Vincenz, seated on a sofa in her North Arlington home as she showed a DVD of the footage.
The black-and-white images -- of protesters in mod hairstyles marching through New York's Greenwich Village in June 1970 -- seem antiquated now. But at the time, Vincenz, said, the march was groundbreaking and the mood thrilling. It was just a year after the Stonewall riots there, which some consider the beginning of the gay rights movement in the United States.
"Nothing had ever happened like this," said Nancy Ruth Davis, Vincenz's partner.
When Bono read the titles of the movies, he balked at filling Vincenz's request, telling her in an e-mail that "Gay and Proud" and the "Second Largest Minority" indicated to him that the material might be of "questionable content." He referred human rights investigators to language posted on his business's Web site that informs customers that his company won't work with material such as pornography or cult video that "runs counter to our Christian and ethical values."
"That is our choice and must be respected," he said. Bono declined to comment for this story.
The Human Rights Commission ruled last month that Bono had discriminated against Vincenz and ordered him to copy the film or pay someone else to do it.
"We felt this was a fair way to address the issue," said Timothy Brogan, the commission chair. "If you're a business providing services to the public, you can't choose who you provide services to and who you're not going to provide services to . . . [T]hat's illegal in Arlington."
Since news of the commission's decision surfaced, Christian groups and others have rallied to Bono's cause. The conservative Christian group Family Policy Network is seeking to find other Arlington business people who feel their religious freedoms were infringed upon for a lawsuit.
"I, as an American citizen, am APPALLED that a government entity would FORCE a private citizen to do something that is against his religious and ethical beliefs," read one e-mail to the county. "What a frightening day in our history if you all are successful in trampling Christian's rights!"
Gay activists see the threat to the human rights ordinances as one more measure of uncertainty in a year when state residents will vote on a controversial amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
"It's just another example of the effort to remove whatever protections might be in place for gays and lesbians living in Virginia," said Joseph Price, general counsel to Equality Virginia, which is fighting against the amendment.
No matter what happens in court, Vincenz said she was glad she stuck up for herself.
"I wasn't going to let anybody discriminate against me," she said. "I wasn't going to do it. I had to live up to my own integrity."