The impassioned debate over gay marriage burst into Richmond City Hall on Monday night as the City Council voted to approve an ordinance granting spousal benefits to gay employees — if Virginia law eventually allows it.
After several speakers warned of the wrath of God if the council approved the ordinance, five council members voted in favor of it, three opposed it and one abstained.
Councilman Chris A. Hilbert, 3rd District, noted the mention of final judgment in defending his vote in support of the ordinance.
“I’m very assured that when I’m standing there that my vote tonight won’t be something that I am ashamed of,” Hilbert said. “It will be something where we are expanding compassion to our fellow human beings.”
Council President Charles R. Samuels, 2nd District, compared the ordinance to similar pre-emptive measures the city has taken to prepare for the potential privatization of ABC stores.
“We know that’s coming,” Samuels said. “And when it comes, the city of Richmond’s ready.”
The council members who didn’t support the ordinance seemed to do so on procedural grounds, with several arguing that passing a symbolic ordinance is not the proper way to send a message to the General Assembly.
Councilwoman Kathy C. Graziano, 4th District, abstained from voting for the first time in nine years, but said she would applaud the day when discrimination ends in Virginia.
“I do not, however, consider it a good policy to pass an ordinance — not a resolution, a law — that cannot at the present time be enforced,” Graziano said.
The council’s Reva M. Trammell, 8th District; Michelle R. Mosby, 9th District; and Vice President Ellen F. Robertson voted against the ordinance.
Virginia’s constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and until that definition changes, the local policy to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states will have no legal effect. The ordinance approves the policy “to the extent now or hereafter permitted or required by law.”
In the council’s afternoon session, Parker C. Agelasto, 5th District, responded to questions about the ordinance by drawing a comparison to Massive Resistance.
“The law said you need to integrate your schools. Did Richmond integrate its schools? No, it stood in the way,” Agelasto said. “I think all we are simply trying to do is say Richmond will not stand in the way if at some point in the future this becomes law in Virginia.”
The ordinance was introduced by Agelasto, Samuels and Hilbert.
During a public comment period that featured dozens of speakers, the first speaker referenced the Bible while calling gay sexual relationships an “abomination” and saying that God decreed that homosexuals “shall be put to death.”
“The day will come that you will answer for what you done here tonight by condoning something that’s contrary to what God said to do,” said South Richmond resident Charles Evans Hughes. “The devil has got to be in you. Y’all can laugh at that all you want, but the devil is in you.”
Other opponents called the ordinance “ridiculously illegal,” “provocative” and “foolish.” Not all moral arguments were as strident as the one made by Hughes, but several people said the ordinance would threaten the traditional family structure.
More than a dozen people spoke in favor of the ordinance, calling it a forward-thinking step toward equality for gay couples.
“I should take a moment, I guess, to thank you for not putting me to death,” said Jim Hill, who identified himself as a gay city employee. “I thank you very much. I think this is very important.”
In June, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that prevented married gay couples from receiving a range of tax, health and retirement benefits.
Because the court’s ruling did not go so far as to establish a constitutional right to gay marriage, Virginia’s 2006 ban on gay marriage was left intact, but several legal challenges are underway to overturn it.
Though 57 percent of Virginia voters approved the 2006 ban, nearly 70 percent of Richmond voters opposed it.
A proposal for a bicycle boulevard on Richmond’s Floyd Avenue will move forward after the City Council voted 7-1 late Monday night to support an application for federal funding for the project.
The vote does not ensure that the idea will become reality, but it will allow city planners to apply for $400,000 in federal alternative transportation funding, which the city would have to match with $100,000.
Bicycling enthusiasts have praised the idea as creating an opportunity for a safer biking route connecting Virginia Commonwealth University and Carytown, but several Floyd residents have voiced concern about the potential impact on parking and property values.
“I can’t say yea or nay without more information,” Samuels said. “And this is how we get the information.”
In concept, the project would span 27 blocks of Floyd and would discourage automobile traffic through calming measures such as mini traffic circles, speed bumps, curb extensions known as chokers and other traffic diverters in conjunction with signage and pavement markings.
Agelasto, a Floyd resident, said many of his neighbors want to pursue the idea to see what it can look like, but he said his biggest concern is that solving one problem might create another one elsewhere.
Agelasto said the city attorney has assured him that his Floyd property doesn’t pose a conflict of interest because the bike boulevard would have a widespread impact.
“However, I will, just as President Samuels mentioned, continue to be mindful of how this plan develops and be certain that the public has plenty of opportunity to have their input,” Agelasto said.
City officials plan to develop specific concepts by early next year and go through another round of public comment on the details, which could still influence the final decision on whether or not to proceed
If residents support the idea, construction would likely begin in the spring of 2015.
“Once the plan is developed, I anticipate multiple town hall meetings,” Samuels said.
Trammell cast the sole vote against the proposal, though she did not explain her objection during the meeting.
Mosby was not present for the vote, which did not occur until about 11 p.m.
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