Buckley's same-sex marriage bill sparks fierce debate

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ST. THOMAS - While the proposal and passage of same-sex marriage laws, both for and against, in the last year have triggered political battles across the United States, the Virgin Islands has taken no interest in addressing territorial law as it relates to same-sex marriage.

Until now.

Sen. Judi Buckley has drafted a bill supporting same-sex marriage that is idling in the legal counsel phase, though it already has sparked a heated debate in the community. She said she proposed the bill because the time seemed right in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that marriage can be between two people and actions by more than a dozen states to legalize same-sex marriage.

On one side, advocates of the bill are arguing that the right to marry another person, no matter their gender, is a basic human right. On the other side, opponents are coming by-and-large from a moral platform, asserting that same-sex marriage is the capital sin of homosexuality, and same-sex marriage should be prohibited under the V.I. Code.

The territory's Code, which currently maintains that a marriage is between a man and a woman, would be changed to allow marriage between any two people if Buckley's bill passes.

Buckley, who submitted the draft at the end of May, doubts it will debut on the V.I. Senate floor before she leaves office at the end of her term in January 2015, but she said she is glad to see that the conversation already is in full swing.

The bill

The V.I. Code states in Title 16 that: "Marriage is hereby declared to be a civil contract which may be entered into between a male and a female in accordance with the law."

The "marriage equality bill," as Buckley calls it, would strike the term "between a male and a female," and replace it with "between two persons."

It also includes a subsection that would ensure that any person, including members of clergy, have the right to decline to conduct any marriage, including one for a same-sex couple.

Additionally, revisions to the Code under the bill would allow for courts to proceed with divorces and annulments in V.I. Superior Court related to same-sex marriages.

Though the bill has yet to go before the V.I. Senate, already it is creating a stir, riling supporters and opponents, though it is hard to say how many people are on either side of the issue.

Vocal opposition

In recent weeks, church groups of various denominations have banded together against the bill under the newly born group, "One Voice Virgin Islands."

The church leaders at the forefront of the group are calling for signatures for a petition that would "uphold traditional marriage law in the U.S. Virgin Islands," according to Change.org, where the petition is posted.

As of Wednesday, 331 people - including a number of politicians running in the 2014 gubernatorial and senatorial races - had signed the petition, which was posted about a month ago.

Comments on the website call same-sex marriage an abomination and a threat to the "moral fiber of society." One commenter spoke of his or her son, who committed suicide.

"My son used to be gay, but I beat it out of him. 2 weeks later he killed himself. If we keep being gay legal more kids may choose to be gay and eventually kill themselves," the person said, citing a Bible passage from the Book of Leviticus.

The organizers are aiming for 49,669 more signatures. They have said that they are looking for Christians, as well as non-Christians, to sign the online document.

Clergy organizing

In a meeting in late June, some pastors from St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John gathered at Word of Faith International Christian Center on St. Thomas to decry Buckley's bill.

Many of the clergy who attended, most of whom are part of One Voice V.I., signed a letter addressed to Gov. John deJongh Jr. and to V.I. Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone, asking that they not consider a bill that promotes unrighteousness.

Since, the clergy have been organizing regular rallies to denounce the drafted bill.

"We are going to have to go to jail for this kind of thing," said Pastor Dexter Skepple of Speak the Word Ministries on St. Croix.

Skepple addressed fellow religious leaders, asking them to step up to the cause and step out of their own "closets" to take on the cause publicly, without fear.

A number of other religious leaders have raised a few questions, asking whether federal law would trump territorial law in the case that the U.S. Supreme Court ever requires same-sex marriages to be recognized in all states and territories. The Supreme Court already has required all states and territories to recognize same-sex couples who are legally married for the purposes of federally required benefits.

"Church and state don't have anything to do with this," said Apostle Alger Warren of Faith Christian Fellowship Church Alive in Christ on St. Thomas. Warren also is the vice-president of One Voice V.I.

Others were concerned about the letter to deJongh and Malone, specifically about a sentence in the letter that suggested that several members of the V.I. government are homosexual.

A number of the clergy members at the meeting said that they do not want to "attack" anyone, nor do they want to step into the territory of defamation.

Still, an equal number of those in attendance said it would be un-Christian not to speak out against the bill.

"We do not wish to be America's same-sex paradise," said New Vision Ministries Pastor James Petty of St. Thomas, president of One Voice V.I.

Quiet support

Not many opponents outside of the group of fervent religious leaders and their followers have spoken against the drafted bill, but few - if any - people have gathered to speak as vocally in support of the bill.

Still, Buckley - through her contact with constituents - knows that there are a good many supporters out there.

"We have a lot of same sex couples here in the territory, whether we like to admit it or not," she said.

While the advocates of the bill may not be as present in the spotlight of the controversy, they are out there.

One group, Liberty Place on St. Croix, has organized meetings for residents to uphold their stance backing passage of the bill, and they have publicly announced their position. They also regularly visit schools and businesses, teaching others about tolerance of people who are different than themselves.

"We fundamentally believe that all consenting adults - no matter their race, sexual orientation, religion or sex - have the freedom to marry," said Melba Mathurin, co-founder of Liberty Place.

The organization was started after the death of a 16-year-old boy, Jamal Richardson, who was fatally beaten - as prosecutors in his case suggested - because he was different. His body was found at the time in a church under construction.

Whether or not it was a hate crime, as Mathurin believes it may have been, Liberty Place has since been advocating for equality, tolerance and respect for all Virgin Islanders.

"We believe that marriage is a basic liberty protected by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment," Mathurin said, citing a portion of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits state and local government officials from depriving persons of life, liberty or property without legislative authorization.

Marjorie Roberts, a St. Thomas attorney who helped Buckley draft the bill, said that regardless of the beliefs of the people in the territory, it likely will be only a matter of time before a same-sex marriage law is passed in the Virgin Islands.

National precedent

Since Buckley took office as a senator in the 30th Legislature in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional.

The act, commonly referred to as DOMA, restricted states from recognizing same-sex couples bound by civil unions and same-sex marriages as legal spouses, which in effect made it impossible for spouses to receive the same benefits under federal law.

Since last year alone, several states have moved to loosen restrictions on marriage, and the Supreme Court ruled in June 2013 with the turnover of DOMA's Section 3 that marriage is now a union between two persons. The federal government recognizes, as a result, all same-sex marriages.

However, states and territories still maintain their own laws.

Currently, 19 states and Washington, D.C., have laws recognizing same-sex marriage, including the three states - Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey - that join the Virgin Islands in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"That puts us in an interesting position," Roberts said, noting that the territory may want to take note of the other three states' initiative in the movement.

At the same time, 28 states have banned gay marriage in amendments to their state constitutions, and three states ban it via statutes. However, 16 judges have invalidated state prohibitions on same-sex marriages so far this year.

Additionally, Puerto Rico has banned same-sex marriage in its civil code. "Any marriage between persons of the same sex or transsexuals contracted in other jurisdictions shall not be valid or given juridical recognition in Puerto Rico," the Puerto Rico Civil Code has stated since 1999.

Some states recognize civil unions, which entitle same-sex couples to the same state-regulated benefits as heterosexual couples, though the unions are not equated to marriages.

USVI same-sex couples

Many same-sex couples in the Virgin Islands, in fact, are married legally by going to the states or elsewhere for their licenses.

"Gay people are not bad people," said St. Croix resident Julie Printy, who married her wife seven years ago in Vancouver, Canada.

While Printy, who has lived in the territory for 26 years, does not feel that her life would change drastically if Buckley's bill passes, she would likely get married here in the territory and also take comfort in knowing that she and her wife could share each other's benefits without a legal battle, she said.

"They're my benefits. I paid into them," said Printy, who also said the territory could see financial gains if it passed the marriage equality bill.

St. John Ceremonies founder Stacy Mulcare, one of the first wedding planners on St. John, said that she has been conducting "commitment ceremonies" for almost two decades, and it is a market that the territory is losing out on.

"We saw a drop in same-sex marriages here when other states started passing their own laws," Mulcare said.

Mulcare, who said that she conducts between five and 10 ceremonies annually for same-sex couples, said that very little is different about the same-sex ceremonies compared with weddings.

Many of the celebrations still take place on the beach, and while people may stare, no one has ever made any rude comments, she said. Afterward, the receptions often are held in private villas rather than very public venues so as not to draw attention, she said.

"It's handled very similarly to a vow renewal," Mulcare said, adding that couples do not leave with marriage licenses, but she gives each couple a keepsake certificate.

"I think we all have the right to be in love," she said.

The bill's future

When the bill will make it out of legal counsel is unknown, according to Buckley, who expects she will have left office by the time it does move on.

While neither she nor her supporters believe strongly that it will be written into law in the near future, she does believe that it is a necessary discussion.

"The reality is, when you know you're not running for re-election, it takes away the fear," she said.

Buckley noted that, in actuality, the bill was mostly drafted last summer, though she did not think it was the right time based on national trends to introduce the controversial legislation.

Now that marriage equality seems to be sweeping the nation, and she is leaving her seat in the Legislature, she feels that it is the right time.

"A lot of our marriage laws haven't been visited since 1957," Buckley said, noting that her revisions to Title 16 also would strike out archaic language that requires a wife to bear the name of the husband.

While no revisions are entered regarding the ages of marriage license applicants, Buckley noted that the territory may want to revisit a section that mandates men to be only 16 years old to marry and women to be only 14.

While the drafted bill still is in the hands of legal counsel, Buckley said she is considering making additional changes to Title 16 that would assuage residents' fears that her bill would be a slippery slope into marriage deregulation.

She is not sure to which committee the bill will be assigned once it is released from legal counsel.

As Senate president, that task falls to Malone, who could not be reached for comment on the bill.

"We have to remember - passing a law like this will not make more people gay. It will not be promoting a gay agenda. It will simply allow same-sex couples the same benefits," Buckley said, referring to custodial, death and medical benefits that all heterosexual couples are entitled to in all states.

While all same-sex couples are entitled to the same under federal law, as per the change to the Defense of Marriage Act, they still have to fight in certain states - and in the Virgin Islands - to access such benefits.

"I was raised in church, and I was raised in the teachings of the Bible. However, as I have gotten older, and I have understood better the Constitution, and I have understood the rules of church and state, I recognize as a lawmaker that I have to set aside my personal convictions," Buckley said. "For me, this is not an issue of morality. I believe that this is an issue of human and civil rights. No one should be discriminated against."

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

ST. THOMAS - One Voice Virgin Islands is not more than a month old, though it is making its presence known in the territory.

The group - which is predominantly made up of Christians opposing same-sex marriage - is led by a group of pastors within the St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John communities.

"The bottom line is: It's immoral," said Apostle Alger Warren of Faith Christian Fellowship Church Alive in Christ on St. Thomas, who is the vice president of the organization.

Pastor James Petty of New Vision Ministries on St. Thomas, who could not be reached for comment, is the organization's president.

The group primarily is made up of Virgin Islanders who are fearful that a recently drafted bill currently being reviewed by the V.I. Senate's legal counsel will pass through the Legislature and allow same-sex marriages in the territory.

When One Voice V.I. members heard about the drafted bill, which was sent to the Legislature in late May, the group formed first from clergy members located throughout the territory.

The group has established its presence namely through a Facebook page and through a petition that is circulating online.

As of Wednesday, the Facebook group had garnered 440 likes - a significant number of which were posted by people who do not live in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The petition, posted on Change.org, asks citizens to ask V.I. government officials to preserve the V.I. Code, as is.

As of Wednesday, 333 people - a number of whom also do not live in the territory - had signed the petition, for which the group eventually hopes to collect a total of 50,000 signatures.

Warren acknowledged that some people who have either liked the group's Facebook page or signed the petition, are not from or in the territory.

However, many of the supporters within the territory meet on a weekly basis.

To view the petition, visit www.change.org/petitions/governor-and-legislature-of-the-u-s-virgin-islands-petition-to-uphold-traditional-marriage-law-in-the-u-s-virgin-islands.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

ST. THOMAS - A St. Croix-based non-profit is doing its part to prevent hate crimes in the territory.

Liberty Place, a territorial non-profit organization that promotes equality, tolerance and respect for all Virgin Islanders, initiated hate crime education after partnering with the U.S. Department of Justice.

In late June, Liberty Place organized a day-long training in which the group introduced more than 20 V.I. Police officers and 30 other community and civic leaders to federal and territorial hate crime law. The training took place at the University of Virgin Islands campus on St. Thomas.

"Some of what we do is provide a safe space," said Liberty Place co-founder Melba Mathurin.

The group got its start in 2012, about a year after a 16-year-old boy, Jamal Richardson, was beaten to death. Investigators believed the incident may have been a hate crime.

The non-profit formed in the wake of Richardson's death and since has gone to schools and businesses throughout the community, educating residents about basic human rights, Mathurin said.

During the training, speakers taught trainees about hate crimes and bias incidents; hate crime prevention and response; police investigation of hate crimes, hate crime prosecution, victim and community trauma; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender cultural awareness.

Speakers included U.S. Attorney General Ronald Sharpe, V.I. Attorney General Vincent Frazer, FBI agent Kurt Remus, Matthew Lattimer of the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relation Service, V.I. Police Intelligence Unit Director Ray Martinez and Mathurin.

A follow-up training is expected to be held on St. Croix in August.

For more information, visit www.libertyplacestx.org.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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