Thursday, February 13, 2014

Virginia's Sorry History of Bigotry and Discrimination

The Virginia Capitol designed by Thomas Jefferson

In the founding days of the United States of America, Virginia provided some of the guiding lights of those men who embraced enlightenment and helped write the nation's founding documents: Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and James Madison was a principal author of the Constitution.  Sadly, since those glorious early days, Virginia has more often been on the side of discrimination and on the wrong side of history: laws in support for slavery (Virginia even fought to maintain slavery), Jim Crow laws and rabid legal support for segregation, "Massive Resistance" which closed public schools rather than desegregate, bans on interracial marriage, and now bans on same sex marriage.  In short, for nearly two centuries hate and discrimination have been the "Virginia way."  It's not something anyone decent should be proud of.  And in announcing that his office would no longer defend Virginia's same sex marriage ban, Attorney General Mark Herring specifically cited that he did not want to continue Virginia's ugly track record, recognizing that like it or not, it has been the application of the U.S. Constitution that has forced Virginia to do what it should have done voluntarily.  Yet the Virginia Christofascists and Virginia GOP want to continue this shameful track record.  A column in the Augusta Free Press looks at this sad reality about Virginia.  Here are excerpts:

Despite Virginia’s historic antipathy toward the federal government, the Commonwealth has nonetheless historically ceded decisions to federal authorities on major issues on which the state had been unwilling to move forward.

Another issue is about to fall into this category: same-sex marriage. Regardless of the desire on the part of conservative Virginians to pretend that it is not so, thousands of Virginians love someone of the same gender, an unknown number live together as partners, and some have already gotten married in other states. While an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as being between a man and a woman passed in a referendum more than a half dozen years ago, recent public opinion polls show a majority of Virginians as accepting of same-sex marriage.

Failure of the legislature to act on the issue has resulted in two cases before federal courts challenging Virginia’s prohibition of same-sex marriage. If the experiences in other states where such cases have been brought in federal court hold true for Virginia, the prohibition will be found to be unconstitutional. With the federal courts’ prodding, Virginia will once again be required to face a reality that it has resisted.

It is not the first time. Virginia also had a law that said that persons of different races could not marry. The legislature refused to acknowledge the unfairness of the law or vote to change it. It took a federal court decision, Loving v. Virginia (1967), to strike down the law.

Virginia segregated its public schools based on race until the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954)–of which a Virginia case was a part–struck down racial segregation. Virginia’s decade-long effort to resist the federal decision was called Massive Resistance, ”a deliberate, orchestrated campaign…intended to slow to a crawl attempts to integrate Virginia’s schools.” ( The campaign was unsuccessful, although it did take 40 more court decisions to integrate the schools in Virginia.

Virginia was also part of the Baker v. Carr decision in 1962 establishing the “one man, one vote” principle because the state legislature refused to acknowledge population shifts that were occurring and permit legislative representation to reflect those shifts until the federal courts intervened.

Federal intervention and the Voting Rights Act got rid of the blank sheet voter registration system and the poll tax that disenfranchised most African Americans

While it is good that the federal government has been a backstop to ending discrimination in many forms, it is truly unfortunate that the General Assembly was not willing to recognize the wrongness of their laws and make decisions on their own without the need for the federal courts to protect Virginians from their own government.

Too often the argument for states’ rights has been used to justify a violation of personal rights. I believe the federal courts will strike down Virginia’s marriage amendment. The General Assembly needs to move forward in outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation instead of waiting until we’re forced to by the federal government.
The column's author is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.  Would that there were more decent, moral delegates like him.

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