Sen. Judi Buckley has introduced a bill to allow same-sex marriage in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but said she doesn’t expect the law to be passed before she leaves the Legislature in January 2015.
The legislative process and controversy over same-sex marriage legislation will delay passage of the law this year, she said.
In June 2013, the U. S. Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote ruled in U.S. v. Windsor that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages that have been legalized by the states. The decision struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act , which had been law since 1996.
Since then the marriage equality movement has gathered steam. Legislatures in eight states have passed laws allowing same sex marriage or overturning laws forbidding it. In a ninth, Maine, voters approved the law change. And in state after state, district court judges have overturned state laws banning recognition of same-sex marriage, citing the high court’s Windsor decision.
Marriage equality is now recognized in 30 states – although in nine of those the court decisions have been appealed.
If Buckley has her way, the territory will join the list of U.S. jurisdictions in which marriage equality is recognized, and will do it on its own behalf rather than waiting for a court to order it.
“We can do it ourselves or let someone do it for us,” Buckley said.
Buckley’s proposed Civil Marriage Equality Act would define marriage as a “civil contract which may be entered into between two people in accordance with law,” rather than the current V.I. Code definition “between a male and female” only. If enacted, the new law would allow clergy to refuse to perform such ceremonies for any reason and gives territorial court clerks the power to legalize marriages when they issue marriage licenses. Divorces and annulments would be handled the same way as heterosexual couples under the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands.
Buckley said she “set aside the teachings she was raised with,” to write the legislation because soon after she was elected, many people asked her to “take it on.”
Since Buckley is not running for re-election, she will be out of office in January. Due to the slow process of moving legislation through the Senate, she said it is unlikely she will see it signed into law. According to Buckley, Gov. John deJongh, Jr. has indicated he would sign the legislation, but he will be out of office also.
In May, Buckley submitted her draft of the bill to the legislative legal department, where it will be reviewed and assigned a number. Next Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone will gather several other senators to assign it to a committee. It will be up to the committee chair to schedule hearings. If the committee approves the measure, it will forward the bill to the Rules and Judiciary Committee for discussion and finally to the full legislature for a vote. Then the governor signs or vetoes the legislation.
“I don’t know if this bill will see the light of day while I’m in office,” Buckley said.
The legal process can slow down the legislation and so can public sentiment. Several local pastors have voiced the belief that the Bible considers homosexuality a mortal sin, a violation of God’s law. Their public opposition goes back to 2004.
Most recently, the Rev. Dexter Skepple told an audience at the Frenchtown ball park the “order of God,” is a husband and a wife.
“Same sex marriage is not a human right, not a civil right,” Skepple said. “Could you imagine two men raising a baby? That’s disastrous. God has designed a husband and a wife to raise a child.”
Buckley said she is “disappointed” in the churches, because there are so many more serious issues to confront in the community.
“There are so many abominations – unpleasing to God – murder, HIV, domestic abuse, and they want to rise up over this,” she said.
A new group has formed to oppose marriage equality in the territory, One Voice Virgin Islands. It launched a campaign to gather 50,000 signatures on a petition urging the governor and Legislature to uphold the current law. The petition says "effeminacy and sexual acts between persons of the same gender are prohibited by Scripture and goes against their very purpose,” providing Biblical references.
As of Saturday, 363 people had signed the petition, although some names in the comments section are clearly fictitious. One Voice also has a Facebook page which has garnered 453 “likes.”
Proponents believe marriage equality is a civil and human right. Glenderlyn David, an educator with the V.I. Department of Education, has been with her partner since 2006 and they were married in 2011 in Washington D.C. She is pregnant with their first child, but because same-sex marriage is not legal in the territory, her spouse cannot be listed as “parent” on the birth certificate. They will have to establish legal guardianship after the child is born. David said it is “the height of ignorance” to think that gay couples can only raise gay children.
“If the logic or philosophy behind this way of thinking were true, then there should be no same-sex couples in existence today because heterosexual people would only raise heterosexual children,” she said.
David, like Buckley, is disturbed that the clergy seems to invoke the Bible only when same-sex marriage is the topic but not for murder, rape, abuse and other sins in the community.
Educator Patasha Tracey is also in favor of same-sex marriages as a human right and believes passage of the bill would create more two-parent homes and ultimately benefit the community.
“I support the bill because I am wholly in favor of every citizen having a right to equal protection under the law. To be against it would be to support discrimination. As we know, this country has a rich history of usurping rights from various groups for a myriad of reasons and as I would’ve opposed that practice then, I am staunchly in opposition to it now,” Tracey said.
In 2004, six St. Croix senators told a group of pastors and their followers at a town-hall meeting they would not support same-sex marriage. None of those senators hold office now so their opinion doesn’t indicate how the current slate of lawmakers will vote.