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W.Va. gay-rights advocates hail high court rulings

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Steve Shamblin and his boyfriend, Scott Perdue, ordered drinks Wednesday evening at the Lee Street Lounge to celebrate two landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions that bolster same-sex rights.

"They should serve champagne," Perdue, 44, of Charleston said, grinning.

In a 5-4 decision, justices struck down a key piece of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that a provision that denied benefits to legally married gay couples is unconstitutional.

Also Wednesday, in another 5-4 decision, the court cleared the way for gay marriage to resume in California by ruling that supporters of Proposition 8, a gay marriage ban, didn't have legal standing to challenge a lower court that overturned the law.

Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, was standing on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court when he heard the decisions, which he called a huge victory for same-sex rights.

 "It was an amazing moment to hear what I think most of us had expected -- that certainly the court would do the right thing," Skinner said.

"I'm not at all surprised. I think amongst folks, certainly lawyers, who follow the Constitution, it's not a surprising way to deal with the issue. It puts it off to another day, but deals with a very practical problem," said Skinner, a Martinsburg attorney and the first openly gay member of the state Legislature.

"It means something personally, but more than that, because I've been an advocate for equal rights for a long time," he said. "I think of all the other people impacted by today's ruling, and it's not over."

Dr. Coy Flowers, president of the gay-rights group Fairness WV, joined Skinner and thousands of others outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Wednesday.

"It's an amazing day. I'm so proud to be able to come to our nation's capital to represent 57,000-plus LGBT Mountaineers whose hopes and dreams for the future were on the line today," Flowers said.

Although the decisions give reason to celebrate, Skinner was quick to point out the challenges that the gay community faces in West Virginia.

"Even on a day like today, we have to remember that it's legal to discriminate in employment and housing on the basis of sexual orientation in West Virginia," he said.

West Virginia doesn't recognize same-sex marriage licenses from other states. Additionally, the state's Human Rights Act doesn't include sexual orientation as one of the protected categories.

During this year's legislative session, Skinner introduced a bill to add sexual orientation to the state's non-discrimination laws, but later asked his colleagues in the House not to pass it, saying it would be watered down to the point of ineffectiveness.

State Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said the court's decisions could be an incentive to pass the non-discrimination measure.

"If [West Virginia] is ever going to attract talent, those types of barriers and laws and mentality have got to go," Kessler said. "If you go to college campuses and ask what they think of gay relationships, people shrug their shoulders and say, 'What's the problem?'"

While there will be state lawmakers who try to make "headline-grabbing attempts to change things or show protest," Kessler said he doesn't believe West Virginia will have an opportunity to make any stricter laws on same-sex marriage.

"I believe it was Martin Luther King who said in one speech . . . 'the world bends toward justice,' and it does, and West Virginia is behind the times."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said in a statement that he agrees with the court's decision.

". . . the federal government cannot discriminate because of who [people] chose to marry. As I've said in the past, our younger generations have grown up in a more equal society and they have rightly pushed us to think more about what it means for Americans to be created equal," Rockefeller said.

James Gross said that while he and his husband, Bobby May, celebrated the rulings, they were reminded of the stance many of West Virginia's political leaders have on gay rights.

Wednesday morning, when Gross checked the mailbox, the couple, which married three years ago in Vermont, received a response to a message they had left for Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

"We had heard him on 'Morning Joe' several weeks ago admitting he had made a mistake and that, if he had to do it over again, he'd vote to end the military ban on gays and Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Gross said. "We thought, 'Wow! He's coming around."

After hearing his remarks on the TV show, Gross called his office and left a voicemail message, thanking him. On Wednesday, when the couple saw the letter, they were excited about the correspondence.

"'Honey, look, we got a letter from the senator," Gross told May. "I opened it and [Manchin] thanked me for the response, but when I got into the body [of the letter, Manchin] was clear, 'I am not for gay marriage, I do not support that'," Gross said.

"There's this great victory for us and, at the same time, this sadness that we have this person that's leading this state, but won't stand out with the forward thinkers of the country."

Manchin is one of three Democrats in the U.S. Senate who don't support gay marriage. He released a statement Wednesday reaffirming his belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

"I have always believed in traditional marriage based on my religious and personal beliefs. While I disagree with today's ruling, I appreciate that the Court did not infringe on the states' 10th Amendment right to define marriage as only between a man and a woman," Manchin said.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. said he has "always advocated marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and nothing in today's Supreme Court decision changes that fundamental belief."

Reps. David McKinley and Shelley Moore Capito, both R-W.Va., noted that DOMA was passed with bipartisan support. Then-President Bill Clinton signed it into law, but said earlier this year that he'd reversed his position on the law.

Jeremiah Dys, president of the Family Policy Council of West Virginia, a conservative evangelical group, said in a statement his group would continue urging state lawmakers to strengthen traditional marriage.

"In spite of the Supreme Court's decision today, marriage remains the union of husband and wife -- a timeless, universal institution that connects children to their mother and father. The Supreme Court got it wrong to invalidate portions of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act," Dys said in the statement.

Bishop Michael Bransfield of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston said in a statement that he will continue to pray "for married couples and families in our Diocese." He wrote that he stands behind the statement released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops calling the decisions "tragic."

Scottie Robinette, however, said the traditional view of marriage is quickly fading. In 2007, Robinette and his partner, Phillip Taylor, both of Charleston, held a wedding ceremony at what used to be the gay club Trax, where they met on the West Side.

Robinette celebrated the Supreme Court decisions Wednesday, even though he and his partner can't afford to move out of state, where they could legally wed.

"I would love for it to be legal here," said Robinette, 34.

"A victory is a victory," Shamblin noted, raising his glass Wednesday, "no matter how small."

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1211.


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