Supporters, opponents of gay marriage rally in Emancipation Garden


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ST. THOMAS - Advocates and opponents of a bill that would formally legalize same-sex marriage in the territory met face-to-face Thursday morning in Emancipation Garden on St. Thomas.

Opponents of the bill, who have unified under the group "One Voice Virgin Islands," obtained a permit from the V.I. Parks and Recreation Department to use the park for a morning press conference, organizers said.

Both One Voice members and supporters of the bill hollered and applauded intermittently during the speech of the main speaker of the event, Alger Warren, a pastor from Faith Christian Fellowship Church Alive in Christ on St. Thomas.

"We believe that marriage, whether performed as a religious or civil ceremony, is a divinely ordained covenant between a man and a woman, period," Warren said before about three dozen members of One Voice and more than a dozen supporters of the bill.

Members wore matching white One Voice T-shirts and held signs stating "Keep calm, God loves being traditional," while the bill's supporters bore signs that stated "It's okay to be gay," "Love is love" and "Love beats hate."

Shouts of "Amen," "Yes," and "Rise up," were heard from the One Voice members in the crowd, mixed with commentary from the same-sex marriage proponents, who stood to the side of the gazebo where Warren spoke.

At points, the marriage equality group encouraged Warren, especially when he spoke of loving all of God's people, but the group also uttered a few disagreeing "no's" when the pastor insisted that the churches are not being homophobic.

While One Voice Virgin Islands has been organizing community meetings, primarily attended by the followers of local churches who have united under One Voice, Thursday was the first time representatives from both sides of the argument appeared together.

"We're not opposed to sitting down with them and talking about it, but that's not going to change our mind," said Warren, who told one of the bill's supporters that he could not ask a question at the microphone because it was a press conference, not a public meeting.

"They're not the press. This was strictly a press conference," he said.

Both groups have been more active since the community has become increasingly aware of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Judi Buckley.

"I have a lot of friends and family members that are gay or bisexual, and I am just voicing my support," said Deenica LaPlace, who wore a homemade rainbow patch on her blouse.

Many of the supporters agreed to show up after a post was made on the "Gay Pride V.I." Facebook page asking supporters of Buckley's bill to appear at the Thursday event.

The Gay Pride V.I. page was started in mid-March this year, and the One Voice Virgin Islands page debuted in May, after Buckley submitted the "marriage equality bill" to the legal counsel office of the V.I. Senate.

The office still is reviewing the bill, and it is not expected to be introduced to the V.I. Senate before the territory's General Election, according to Buckley.

"Separation of church and state. It's OK not to believe in gay marriage, but they should still be able to marry," said Jodi Geosits, another supporter.

The V.I. Code currently maintains that a marriage is between a man and a woman, and Buckley's bill would change the code to allow marriage between any two people, regardless of gender.

"I'm totally against it, because it's against the word of God. I stand for the word of God," said Margarita Somme, who attended in support of One Voice. "There's no such thing as separation for church and state. God is the head of our government."

However, in the mainland U.S., courts have recently overturned state laws that restrict legally married same-sex couples from obtaining the same rights as married heterosexual couples.

In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act's Section 3 and ruled that marriage is a union between two persons. As a result of the high court's decision, the federal government recognizes all same-sex marriages.

It was only a month ago that Michele Weichman, of St. Thomas, flew to New Jersey for the sole purpose of marrying her wife, though the territory currently does not recognize Weichman and her partner as spouses.

"I've been fighting for marriage equality for forever," Weichman said.

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court decision last year, 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.

This year alone, at least 16 judges have invalidated state prohibitions on same-sex marriages.

Twenty-eight states have bans on gay marriage in amendments to their state constitutions, and three states ban it via statutes. Puerto Rico has banned same-sex marriage in its civil code.

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.

"Marriage was born not in Congress of the United States," said Hector Lima, a former pastor who attended Thursday's event in support of One Voice. "It was born in the heart of God."

However, Lima also said it is not his place, or anyone's place, to condemn another person - as only God can do that.

"I cannot condemn them. I went to them. I shook hands with them," Lima said of the bill's supporters.

On Thursday, One Voice also announced plans for an Aug. 24 march from Addelita Cancryn Junior High School to Emancipation Garden to support traditional marriage laws, organizers said.

Supporters of the same-sex marriage bill said Thursday they have not yet decided whether they will attend the march as well.

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

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