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Va. lesbian couples file lawsuit seeking marriage rights

ACLU, Lambda Legal seek to overturn 2006 constitutional ban

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Victoria Kidd, Christy Berghoff, Winchester, Virginia, ACLU, same-sex marriage, gay marriage, marriage equality, gay news, Washington Blade
Victoria Kidd, Christy Berghoff, Winchester, Virginia, ACLU, same-sex marriage, gay marriage, marriage equality, gay news, Washington Blade

Victoria Kidd and Christy Berghoff of Winchester, Va. (Photo courtesy of the ACLU)

The American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of two lesbian couples who are challenging Virginia’s gay nuptials ban and the commonwealth’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states.

Joanne Harris and Jessica Duff of Staunton, who have been together for more than nine years and are raising a 4-year-old son, tried to apply for a marriage license in Staunton Circuit Court on July 29. Christy Berghoff and Victoria Kidd of Winchester, who have been together for more than nine years and are raising an 8-month-old daughter, married in D.C. in August 2011.

“I’m an Air Force veteran, and if Virginia would just respect our marriage from D.C., it would ensure that my spouse and family could access all the benefits I’ve earned,” Berghoff, who works for the U.S. Justice Department. “I’ve been with Victoria for almost a decade now; and it hurts to have our home state say we are not married when it recognizes marriages entered into by different-sex couples who may have only recently met.”

The ACLU and Lambda Legal filed the lawsuit against the commonwealth’s same-sex marriage ban that voters approved in 2006 slightly more than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court found a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and struck down California’s Proposition 8.

A gay couple from Norfolk last month filed a separate federal lawsuit that challenges Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban.

Neighboring Maryland is among the 13 states and D.C. in which same-sex couples can marry. The federal government also recognizes the marriages of gays and lesbians who legally tied the knot, although their ability to receive Social Security and other federal benefits depends upon whether the state in which they live will recognize their unions.

“It seems contrary to the rights and liberties guaranteed to us by our Constitution, that a trip across the Potomac River, an arbitrary geographical line would somehow grant or deny any citizen equal treatment under the law,” said James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia.

A Quinnipiac University poll released on July 18 noted 50 percent of Virginians support same-sex marriage. A survey that Public Policy Polling unveiled a week before found 55 percent of commonwealth residents back nuptials for gays and lesbians.

State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) said in a statement he knows of “too many couples” who have moved out of the commonwealth because of “a lack of protections now offered to our neighbors in the District of Columbia and Maryland.”

“With a total of 13 states and D.C. offering equality to couples, Virginia is at a competitive and economic disadvantage,” Ebbin said. “After all, forward thinking companies of all sizes locate where their diverse workforces will enjoy a high quality of life.”

Tucker Martin, a spokesperson for Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Western Division of Virginia in Harrisonburg, defended Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban in a statement to the Washington Blade.

“The voters of Virginia passed a constitutional amendment in 2006 defining marriage in the commonwealth as being only a union of one man and one woman,” Martin said. “It is the law in this state based on the popular will of the voters as expressed at the ballot box.”

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit, although spokesperson Brian Gottstein referred to a statement he released after the Supreme Court issued its DOMA and Prop 8 rulings.

“Virginia has followed the traditional definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman for more than 400 years,” Cuccinelli said in a June 26 statement on the justices’ rulings. “Virginians voted overwhelmingly to add this traditional definition to their constitution.”

Cuccinelli, who will face off against former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe in the commonwealth’s gubernatorial election, highlighted his opposition to same-sex marriage last month during a debate at the Homestead in Hot Springs. GOP lieutenant gubernatorial candidate E.W. Jackson and Mark Obenshein, who is running to succeed Cuccinelli as attorney general, also oppose nuptials for gays and lesbians.

McAuliffe in February publicly backed same-sex marriage. State Sens. Ralph Northam (D-Norfolk) and Mark Herring (D-Loudoun,) who are running for lieutenant governor and attorney general respectively, also support the issue.

Joanne Harris, Jessica Duff, Staunton, Virginia, ACLU, same-sex marriage, gay marriage, marriage equality, gay news, Washington Blade

Joanne Harris and Jessica Duff of Staunton, Va. (Photo courtesy of the ACLU)

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World

Pope, Canterbury archbishop, Presbyterian leader denounce criminalization laws

Religious officials made comments after leaving South Sudan

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Pope Francis The pontiff, along with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Rt. Rev. Iain Greenshields of the Church of Scotland on Feb. 5, 2023, denounced criminalization laws after they left South Sudan. (Photo by palinchak via Bigstock)

Pope Francis, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the world’s top Presbyterian minister on Sunday publicly denounced laws that criminalize LGBTQ and intersex people and said their respective churches should welcome them.

The Associated Press noted Francis told reporters during a press conference onboard his plane after it departed from South Sudan that “criminalizing people with homosexual tendencies is an injustice.” Welby and the Rt. Rev. Iain Greenshields, the Presbyterian moderator of the Church of Scotland, were standing alongside the pontiff.

“There is nowhere in my reading of the four Gospels where I see Jesus turning anyone away,” said Greenshields, according to the AP. “There is nowhere in the four Gospels where I see anything other than Jesus expressing love to whomever he meets.” 

“And as Christians, that is the only expression that we can possibly give to any human being, in any circumstance,” added Greenshields.

Francis during an exclusive interview with the AP on Jan. 24 described criminalization laws as “unjust” and said “being homosexual is not a crime.” 

The pontiff acknowledged some Catholic bishops support criminalization laws and other statutes that discriminate against LGBTQ and intersex people. Francis told the AP that cultural backgrounds contribute to these attitudes, and added “bishops in particular need to undergo a process of change to recognize the dignity of everyone.”

Francis spoke to the AP ahead of his trip to Congo and South Sudan, which is among the nearly 70 countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

The pontiff — who was a vocal opponent of the marriage equality bill in his native Argentina before then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner signed it into law in 2010 — now supports civil unions for same-sex couples. 

The AP notes the Church of Scotland allows same-sex marriages. The Church of England allows clergy to bless same-sex civil marriages, but LGBTQ couples cannot marry in its churches. 

The Vatican’s tone towards LGBTQ and intersex issues has softened since Francis assumed the papacy in 2013, but the church continues to consider homosexuality a sin. The Vatican also opposes marriage for same-sex couples and blessings of them. 

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District of Columbia

Defendant pleads guilty to second-degree murder in Vongell Lugo case

Victim’s family, friends upset over proposed 14–16-year sentence

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Vongell Lugo was stabbed to death on Jan. 6, 2019. (Photo courtesy of GoFundMe)

A man charged with premeditated first-degree murder while armed for the Jan. 6, 2019, murder of gay corporate manager Vongell Lugo pleaded guilty in D.C. Superior Court on Feb. 3 to a single count of second-degree murder while armed as part of a plea bargain deal offered by prosecutors.

As part of the plea offer, prosecutors with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia agreed to drop the first-degree murder charge against Collin J. Potter. The agreement also calls for prosecutors to ask Superior Court Judge Marisa Demeo, who’s presiding over the case, to hand down a sentence of between 14 and 16 years of incarceration.

Under D.C. law, second-degree murder carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. Demeo scheduled a sentencing hearing for April 14.

Potter’s guilty plea came just over two weeks after Demeo on Jan. 23 approved a motion filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter V. Roman, the lead prosecutor in the case, calling for dismissing four of the five counts in a grand jury indictment against Potter handed down in August 2019. The counts that were dismissed included two counts of felony murder while armed (aggravating circumstances,) kidnapping while armed and first-degree sexual assault while armed.

Roman’s motion called for leaving in place the fifth count of the grand jury indictment: First degree murder while armed (premeditated) (aggravating circumstances.)

Court records show that Demeo dismissed that charge as part of the plea agreement after Potter pleaded guilty on Feb. 3 to second-degree murder while armed. The three-page plea agreement filed in court also states that second-degree murder while armed carries a maximum sentence of 30 years of incarceration under the D.C. criminal code and the judge would make the final decision on a sentence for Potter.

Two longtime friends of Lugo, Hannah Davis Hastings and Juliana Geller, who said they were representing Lugo’s family, spoke briefly at the Feb. 3 court hearing at the invitation of Roman. 

The two women told Demeo, who agreed to allow them to speak, that they and the Lugo family strongly object to the recommendation that Potter be sentenced to a range of 14 to 16 years, saying a just and fair sentence should be significantly greater. Demeo told the two women they and others will be given an opportunity to speak and express their concerns at the April 14 sentencing hearing.

At the time of his arrest in January 2019, Potter, then 26, was serving as a U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman. He has been held in jail since the time of his arrest and during the more than four years that the case has gone on while Potter was awaiting a trial.  

In addition to agreeing to the plea bargain offer, Potter agreed to and signed a one-page Proffer of Facts submitted by prosecutors that states in detail the allegations against Potter that it says would have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt had the case gone to trial.

The proffer begins by telling what happened after police and prosecutors say Lugo and Potter met, possibly for the first time, at the Black Whiskey bar at 1410 14th St., N.W., on the night of the murder, at which time Lugo, 36, invited Potter to Lugo’s apartment in Northwest D.C.

“On Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019, at approximately 4:00 a.m., the defendant and the decedent, Vongell Lugo, were alone together in Mr. Lugo’s apartment,” the proffer states. “The defendant, unprovoked, attacked Mr. Lugo,” it says. 

“The defendant grabbed one of Mr. Lugo’s kitchen knives from Mr. Lugo’s kitchen and stabbed Mr. Lugo 42 times in the head, neck, and torso, killing Mr. Lugo,” the proffer continues. “According to the autopsy, the defendant, at some point, also punched Mr. Lugo in the face. Mr. Lugo never fought back, beyond yelling for help,” the proffer says, adding that two neighbors heard the calls for help and called 911.

“The defendant then attempted to clean the knife in the kitchen sink,” it states. “Around 4:20 a.m. the defendant pulled Mr. Lugo’s naked body out into the hallway, where Mr. Lugo’s body was found and the defendant was discovered by MPD officers, standing naked, uninjured and covered in Mr. Lugo’s blood.”

Court records show that Potter was arrested on the scene and initially charged with second degree murder while armed. The court records show that prosecutors a short time later offered a plea bargain deal, which Potter through his attorney rejected, calling for Potter to plead guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for the government not seeking a grand jury indictment on first-degree murder and other charges.

The grand jury then handed down its five-count indictment in August 2019 that included the first-degree and felony murder charges along with the sexual assault and kidnapping charges. For reasons not provided in the public court records, the case dragged on for the next four years until a trial was scheduled to take place April 18, 2023. 

The U.S. Attorney’s office has declined to provide a reason why it decided for the second time to offer the plea agreement for second-degree murder rather than bring the case to trial on the charges included in the indictment.

“They just said this is a better way to do this,” Hastings, Lugo’s friend, told the Washington Blade after the Feb. 3 court hearing. “I don’t think there is anything more we can share on this,” she said. 

Attorneys familiar with criminal cases like this one have said prosecutors sometimes offer plea deals when they are not certain they can obtain a conviction on first-degree murder in a trial by jury. In some cases, when the defense establishes a “reasonable doubt” in the minds of jurors, a verdict of not guilty has emerged in murder cases, lawyers have said. 

Longtime D.C. defense attorney Mindy Daniels, who practices criminal law, said in the case of the Lugo murder, where there were no witnesses and the two men were in the apartment alone, the defense could have argued a number of claims that could have an impact on a jury, such as the defendant acted in self-defense after being attacked by the victim. 

“Trials are unpredictable,” Daniels said. “When they can get a murder conviction without a trial, the government is often satisfied,” she said, noting that a second-degree murder conviction is still a murder conviction. “A jury might find the defendant guilty of second-degree murder at trial anyway,” Daniels said. “A plea is a guaranteed conviction.”

At the time of his death, Lugo had been working as an associate manager for TransPerfect, an international company that provides foreign language translation, interpretation and business services. Friends of Lugo have said that prior to joining TransPerfect in 2016, he worked as a manger in the men’s clothing department at the D.C. area retail stores J Crew, Bloomingdale’s, and the Gap beginning in 2003.

“Everyone who met him became his friend for life,” said one friend who was among more than 80 people, including co-workers, friends and family members, who attended a Jan. 11, 2019, candlelight vigil celebrating Lugo’s life. “Vongell was a beloved son, brother, uncle and coworker” who was a “kind soul, the center of the party, and a beacon of light that made an impact on everyone he came into contact with,” another friend said at the vigil.

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Virginia

Va. House committee advances two anti-transgender bills

Democrats in state Senate will likely kill measures

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Virginia House Education Committee on Friday approved two anti-transgender bills.

Committee members advanced state Del. Karen Greenhalgh (R-Virginia Beach)’s House Bill 1387, which would ban transgender athletes from school sports teams that correspond with their gender identity, and state Del. Dave LaRock (R-Loudoun County)’s House Bill 2432, which would require school personnel to out trans students to their parents.

A House subcommittee earlier this week approved the two bills.

Republicans control the House of Delegates by a 51-47 margin. Democrats have a 22-18 majority in the Virginia Senate.

The Senate Education Committee on Thursday killed six anti-trans bills. It is likely HB 1387 and HB 2432 will meet the same fate once they reach the state Senate.

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