On the first day of spring, after a long, snowy winter, about 40 people gathered outside the Loudoun County Courthouse at noon Thursday to witness local members of the clergy giving their blessings to couples in committed same-sex relationships.
“Witness for Love,” originally scheduled for Valentine’s Day and postponed because of snow, was organized by People of Faith for Equality in Virginia, a branch of the LGBT advocacy group Equality Virginia. Longtime observers said the event, on the grounds of the historic courthouse in Leesburg, was the first of its kind in Loudoun.
With calls for action, hand-held signs and songs of freedom and justice, the event was as much a political rally as a spiritual ceremony.
“As witnesses of love, we are here because we believe that God made us in God’s image,” said Daniel Vélez Rivera, a priest at St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Leesburg. “And my personal belief is that God does not make mistakes. So there is a mistake if God has made us equal in God’s image, yet we can’t be recognized by law as equal.”
Vélez Rivera opened the proceedings with personal testimony, saying that he and his partner had received a church blessing in 2000. “And when Massachusetts allowed us to be married, we said, ‘We have to exercise our legal right, just like voting,’ ” he said. The couple were married May 20, 2004.
Several members of the clergy called for changing Virginia’s laws to allow them to perform same-sex weddings that had the same legal standing as other marriages.
“The courts need to see us, to hear us,” said Phyllis Hubbell, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Loudoun.
“One of the things the court needs to know in order to be able to overturn [laws prohibiting same-sex marriage] is that there are a substantial number of religious people who believe that it is moral for states to perform marriages of same-gender people,” Hubbell said. “We need to show them that a growing number of us perform religious ceremonies for same-sex couples, and that many of us long for the day that Virginia will recognize those ceremonies the same way that they do others.”
Rabbi Michael Ragozin of Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg said, “The time has come for the commonwealth of Virginia to stand up for human dignity, to promote religious freedom and to remove all of the obstacles that prevent same-sex couples from marrying in the sanctity of my synagogue in Leesburg, Virginia.”
“One of the difficult moments for me as a pastor was when some parishioners had to go out of state to get married,” said Don Prange, pastor of St. James United Church of Christ in Lovettsville. “And what’s more, when they were planning to have a family, they had to move out of state. Otherwise the health benefits would not have been available to them in the state of Virginia.
“My hope is that our witness today will be a word to the state of Virginia to stop playing God and let people live in the faith of their love for each other,” Prange said. “Let people live in the faith of love for all humanity. And let’s really bring about equality and justice for all.”
State Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-Leesburg) briefly addressed the gathering to express her support for marriage equality. “Things are changing every day, and your coming out and showing public support for this position is something that is going to be very, very helpful,” she said. “I am with you.”
Wexton said after the event that, although Virginia is not usually an early adopter, she sees the tide turning in favor of marriage equality.
“I know that there may not be a lot of other support among Loudoun electeds, so I think it’s incumbent on me to stand up for equality and people’s rights,” Wexton said.
After clergy members addressed the gathering, Vélez Rivera invited people in same-sex marriages or unions to come forward, where they were encircled by the clergy, family members and other supporters for a group blessing.
Only a handful of people in same-sex unions were present, and none attended with a partner or spouse. Event organizer Anya Sammler-Michael, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Sterling, said she thought that the need to reschedule the event had hurt attendance, and that she knew of some people who did not feel comfortable attending the public blessing because of their jobs.
Carlos Canales, 51, of Sterling said he attended as a show of support for marriage equality, which he thinks is important to ensure that same-sex couples are treated fairly on matters such as health care and retirement benefits. He said that his husband, whom he married in Maryland in October after they were together seven years, was unable to attend because of work.
Susan McGlohn, 48, of Leesburg attended with her 13-year-old stepdaughter, Meredith Keppel.
“It meant so much on a spiritual level, as well as a political level, as well as just a morally correct level,” McGlohn said. “To be on the right side of the law and love is important.”