Thursday, January 19, 2006

Commonwealths Pro and Con Liberty

There are many Virginias within that U.S. commonwealth. I lived for years in two of them and have friends and relatives in a third. They are as different as Becket to Boston to Beverly.

To us in Massachusetts, another of the four commonwealths, it is shocking to see how much parts of the Mother of Presidents can be like our own hinterlands. Like Massachusetts, Virginia has a surprising number of pockets of social conservatism.

In elementary school, I dearly loved books and transferred that affection to the chief children's librarian at the Danville Public Library. In that city, three miles above North Carolina, the magnificent mansion had been the home of Confederate Major William Thomas Sutherlin. It was the last capital of the CSA for the final days of the war.

While we studied history -- U.S., world and state -- in school, in the children and then the adult areas, I studied first dinosaurs, and then Gods -- Norse, Greek, Roman, Hindu, and more.

In Virginia history classes, the stress was decidedly on the commonwealth's contributions to liberty, there and throughout the nation. The irony of Washington and Jefferson owning Black people, yet speaking and writing for human freedom is not buried there. In contrast, many New Englanders my age never learned that the slave trade started in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, the vast majority of those engaged in collecting Black slaves and profiting off their sale were here, and largely the comparatively inefficient economics of small farms here inspired widespread abolition support.

drawing of Federal Street ChurchWe need look no farther than Boston's Federal Street Church to see how the economics and politics began to play out. It had been the Long Lane Church before the U.S. Constitution was ratified there, inspiring the name change of both the church and its street. Now that spot is home to a gigantic bank. The Federal Street Church moved to the new landfill that would become the Back Bay and its new building, the Arlington Street Church, became the first public edifice in the area in 1861.

In the decades before that (1803 through 1842), liberal minister William Ellery Channing headed the church. Not only was he the founder and definer of American Unitarianism, but he was famous with his Transcendentalist friends as an abolitionist.

Considering the anti-war/radical/pro-ame-sex marriage reputation of the Arlington Street Church since the Korean War, that all seems logical. However, there is a deep wrinkle. The Federal Street Church had quite a few wealthy congregants, including some involved in shipping and the slave trade. The board at the time forbade Channing from speaking against slavery in his own church. His writings and sermons on the topic were printed and delivered elsewhere.

Likewise (whew, finally back to it), Virginia had its Patrick Henry, its stalwart and costly Revolutionary War legacy, and its long history of schizophrenia on liberty.

Note: This is Robert E. Lee's 199th birthday.

Now, despite its pockets and few deep buckets of liberalism, it has come down as a commonwealth squarely on the site of restricting liberty, most recently for same-sex marriage. This week, a Senate committee voted 11 to 3 for a DoMA-style amendment. A few days before, the whole House voted 76 to 20 for it.

The legislature has rushed this amendment toward a November 2006 vote. Irony recurs in that this would amend Virginia's Bill of Rights to make sure that homosexuals do not get rights. It would write discrimination in its constitution.

To wit, to an otherwise very American document based on liberties, the amendment would add:

Section 15-A. Marriage.

That only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this Commonwealth and its political subdivisions.

This Commonwealth and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage. Nor shall this Commonwealth or its political subdivisions create or recognize another union, partnership, or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage.

The section of the existing Virginia Bill of Rights that it would bastardize reads:

Section 15. Qualities necessary to preservation of free government.

That no free government, nor the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue; by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles; and by the recognition by all citizens that they have duties as well as rights, and that such rights cannot be enjoyed save in a society where law is respected and due process is observed.

That free government rests, as does all progress, upon the broadest possible diffusion of knowledge, and that the Commonwealth should avail itself of those talents which nature has sown so liberally among its people by assuring the opportunity for their fullest development by an effective system of education throughout the Commonwealth.

The contrast is shocking. The changes are vicious and punitive -- also subject to challenge. The amendment appears to invalidate existing forms of civil contracts between unmarried people. Of course, it flies in the face of the well-established full-faith-and-credit clause. Virginians too seem terrified that married Massachusetts homosexuals will arrive demanding equality.

As in other DoMA-panicked states, this is a disgrace that will bring legal challenges and likely eventually require legislative or court action to remove or remedy. As my grandmother might have said, "It's a good thing Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson aren't around to see this!"


Anonymous said...

"Nor shall this Commonwealth or its political subdivisions create or recognize another union, partnership, or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage."

Wow, this sounds so broad that courts could use it to invalidate wills that do not give all the property of a dead person to the surviving spouse, and could similarly mess up all sorts of other legal contracts for folk gay and straight. This seems like bad lawmaking, and bad faith in the founders of the Commonwealth. I knew Virginia had a statute with similar wording, but seeng this as an ammendment to the Virginia Constitution is obscene. I guess it will be a state to avoid for gay couples whether you are married or just have a will or health care proxy for your lover. I'll never go to that Commonwealth again, unless this is struck down by a higher court. Virginia is not for lovers anymore....

massmarrier said...

I'm with you. I suspect this won't stand any testing. It's almost funny that the legislature is rushing this through, as their voters are telling them to get on with real business.

Of course, when this passes and then gets overturned in two or three years, how much emotional and economic damage will this have already done? For the life of me, I don't see why people want to punish same-sex couples and at the same time try to set up separate and unequal classes under law. You'd think they would have learned their lessons in the 1960s...