The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Is Virginia’s lieutenant governor paying attention to her friends?

Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears (R), the first woman of color elected statewide in state history, gavels the state Senate to order in Richmond on Jan. 17 in Richmond. (Laura Vozzella /The Washington Post)
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Corey Saylor, a longtime Virginia resident, is director of research and advocacy at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy group.

The sight of a figure who has been widely criticized for expressing anti-Muslim views taking a photo with one of Virginia’s most important elected officials and claiming that the official is a “dear friend” of two decades should make every Virginian uncomfortable. After all, Virginia is for lovers, not extremists.

I ask the Youngkin administration to end its silence on anti-Islam extremist group leader Brigitte Gabriel and her claim, accompanied by a photograph, of a decades-long friendship with Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears (R).

Gabriel leads ACT for America. She has argued that “every practicing Muslim is a radical Muslim,” a Muslim “cannot be a loyal citizen of the United States” and that Arabs “have no soul.” The Post reported in 2017 that Gabriel “has said that she is anti-sharia, not anti-Muslim, a point that a number of the group’s speakers repeated Saturday. But Gabriel also has said that all practicing Muslims adhere to sharia, and speakers on Saturday made sweeping statements about Islam as an enemy of the state.:

On May 20, Gabriel tweeted, “With my dear friend of 20 years Lieutenant Governor of Virginia Winsome Sears. We are fortunate to have her!” The tweet was accompanied by a photo of Gabriel and Earle-Sears warmly smiling at the camera.

In 2017, ACT for America planned rallies in dozens of U.S. cities to protest Americans of the Islamic faith. Multiple sources reported the presence of hate groups and hate speech at multiple rallies.

Some of the anti-government militias that participated also said that they participated to provide security for the rallies. These included the Oath Keepers, whose role in the deadly 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol have featured prominently in the ongoing bipartisan Jan. 6 congressional hearings.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has pictures on its website of the presence of white supremacists at the rallies, reported that Identity Evropa founder Nathan Damigo was at ACT’s Roseville, Calif., rally. To join Damigo’s organization, you needed to be of “European, non-Semitic heritage,” SPLC notes. Among the photographs of the Roseville rally was a “blatantly anti-Semitic sign,” the SLPC said.

Identity Evropa was represented at multiple ACT rallies. For example, North Carolina-based INDY week reported that Peter Boykin, who coordinated the Raleigh rally, “publicly thanked Identity Evropa, a group founded [in 2016] that openly espouses white supremacy.” An Identity Evropa banner at the Orlando rally called to “End to Islamic Immigration.”

The Post reported that at the ACT rally in Harrisburg, Penn., Francisco Rivera, a spokesperson for Vanguard America, told reporters, “I don’t believe in having Muslims in the United States.” A speaker at the ACT-sanctioned rally in Dallas called Muslims “demonic” and “sick perverts,” according to Religion News Service. A branch of Vanguard America rebranded as Patriot Front after the deadly 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally.

The above evidence lays out a clear pattern that cannot be explained away by claiming hosting white supremacists was an isolated incident.

This seems like the kind of stuff from which public officials could easily distance themselves. But more than two weeks after I sent a letter to Earle-Sears, the tweet is still public, and the administration’s response is silence.

Respecting faith and condemning bigotry are not issues of left or right. They are central to Virginia’s identity.

Because of Founding Father and Virginian Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a law enacted in 1786, says, “(O)ur civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” Jefferson’s Quran was used to ceremonially swear in the first Muslim member of Congress.

In early April, as Virginians of the Islamic faith were observing Ramadan, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) visited the largest Muslim community in Northern Virginia. This was his second visit to the community. He met for an hour with key Muslim leaders, and he tweeted about it afterward.

This was a good move. At the time, a Muslim leader noted that there are an estimated 400,000 Virginians who observe the Islamic faith. They serve in elected office, in hospitals and at other places doing the hard work that keeps our state a great place to live and visit.

On the condemning bigotry side of the coin, Earle-Sears has pointed out that she is “2nd in command of the former capitol of the Confederacy.” This is critical civil rights progress worth celebration. The Confederacy’s cornerstone rested on the idea that slavery is a “natural and normal condition.”

The swift and utter rejection of discrimination must be in Virginian DNA as the ground of our state contains the remains of numerous patriots who gave their lives to preserve the U.S. Constitution and end slavery.

The Youngkin administration needs to clearly reject Gabriel and ACT for America. Gabriel is free to say what she wants, even hateful words, but her reward should be political ostracism. A photo and “dear friend” tweet feels like the opposite of Virginia’s values.

I hope the administration’s response is worth celebrating.