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It's a battle over marriage and right now Virginia is at the forefront of a nationwide shift in how it's defined.

Marriage is an institution igniting a debate embroiled in a passion that's fueled by a quest for civil rights by religion and what's believed to be traditionally acceptable.

Norfolk Pastor Mark Byrd who leads the congregation of New Life Metropolitan Community Church on Norview Avenue is on the frontlines of the fight for marriage equality. A year and a half ago, he and his partner, Alberto Najera crossed over the Virginia border to Washington DC into gay-friendlier territory to get married. He's ecstatic over the recent court decisions to strike down the ban on gay marriage.

'I'm excited to be here in this moment where we can be proud to be Virginians to be living in the Commonwealth. I'm expecting that really soon we're going to be able to truly recognize all couples,' says Byrd.

Last February, United States District Court Judge Arenda Wright Allen of Norfolk ruled the ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. In late July, the U.S Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Wright Allen's decision. And on Wednesday, the appeals court chose not to stay the ruling pending an appeal to the Supreme Court. It means gay couples could begin getting married in Virginia next week barring a U-S Supreme Court intervention.

At the center of the argument could be the case in which gay couple Tim Bostic and Tony London were denied a marriage license in Norfolk.

As a Christian, Byrd says he's bothered when gay marriage opponents use religion as a basis to discriminate.

'To say that this is about my religious beliefs--but yet when it discriminates against someone else--how can that be from the love of God?' Byrd asks.

Once a Baptist minister in Western North Carolina, Byrd married a woman because he thought that's what he had to do. He was afraid that he would have to give up his spirituality when he came out as a gay man. Now, many years later, it's that spirituality, he says, that sustains him as he fights for marriage equality.'All of us are still God's children and all of us deserve to be loved and have the equality.'

Ironically, it is also a strong Christian faith that leads Chesapeake's Bishop E.W. Jackson to oppose gay marriage. He is the founder of Standing True to America's National Destiny (STAND), a non-profit organization.

In a recent email to supporters, Jackson, the former Republican Lieutenant Gubernatorial nominee, wrote 'We must do battle against the growing intolerance, bigotry and persecution of Christians who will not bow to same-sex marriage.'

'We believe God created marriage. Man did not invent it. We believe that marriage unfortunately is under a attack and we're doing all we can to preserve it as a union between one man and one woman,' says Jackson.

He adds condemning same sex marriage is not his doing, it's what's in the Bible. He refers to Romans Chapter 1. The preaching of the Apostle Paul, verse 27 says 'The men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another.'

Both Jackson and Byrd are featured in the half-hour special presentation, Virginia is for Lovers. Marriage in the Commonwealth: Past, Present, and Future.

It airs Thursday, August 14 at 7pm on ABC 13. The special looks at the changing face of marriage in Virginia and how people of different races, ages, and sexual orientations are responding to it.

Politics of marriage:

Attorney General Mark Herring chose to announce early this year that he would no longer defend the ban on gay marriage. Herring is the first state attorney general to argue successfully at the federal district and appeals levels that a state marriage ban should be struck down. His actions have produced a political enemy with Republican Delegate Bob Marshall who represents a portion of Prince William and Loudon Counties.

He has called for Herring to be impeached saying that the attorney general is violating the state's constitution. In 2006, Marshall coauthored the gay marriage ban amendment which passed overwhelmingly by Virginia's voters.

Loving V. Virginia:

The famous landmark supreme court case, Loving V. Virginia has renewed life as the gay marriage debate heats up. Many people compare the case that struck down the ban on interracial marriage to the fight for same sex marriage. Philip Hirschkop was one of the attorneys who argued Loving V. Virginia before the Supreme Court in 1967.

Now living in Lorton, Virginia, Hirschkop recalls Mildred Loving, who was black, as quiet, sweet but yet determined to fight for her marriage to her white husband, Richard. The two were arrested in the late 50's when they returned to Caroline County, Virginia after being married in Washington DC. Hirschkop was only 31 years old when he argued the case but he had already established himself as a successful civil rights attorney.

Interracial Marriage:

Rita and Richard Cottingham have only been married 7 years. They are an older couple who never could have imagined a day when they could see themselves married to a person of the opposite race. Rita is black. Richard if white. Together, they run Serenity, Inc in Hampton, Virginia, which provides sponsored residential care and training to individuals with intellectual disabilities. Having come up in a time when they witnessed rampant racial discrimination, the Cottingham's say they can relate to same sex couples.

Tony Crisp and Jim Whalen are a married same-sex couple from Norfolk. They tied the knot back in October. As a same-sex interracial couple, they say they've faced discrimination from two different directions. As a dating couple 40 years ago, the two say they struggled to find a landlord to rent to them, not because they are gay but because Tony is black and Jim is white. As Crisp joined the fight for civil rights in the 60's, he hid the part of himself that even those closest to him would struggle to accept, being gay. Both men say they can feel a major change in attitudes all around.

'I am so happy that children don't have to grow up knowing that who they are and seeing no hope for their lives, no future to be able to live happy and productive lives. That's all changed so much,' says Whalen.

Generation Gap:

Some of the older generations have watched marriage change over the years with a bit of disbelief. Norfolk couple Omega and Thomas Hewitt have been married for 57 years. They are a devoted couple with a great sense of humor.

Omega says she's surprised by how quickly the younger generation will decide to get married without talking out their differences first. Thomas agrees. The religious couple disagrees with same sex marriage and worries about children not being raised under the influence of Christianity.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Parish and Rachel Love are a young same sex couple in Chesapeake raising a one year old daughter named Olivia. They would like to get married someday when it's legal in Virginia. Rachel says older people need to realize it's not 1954 anymore, its 2014. And in her words, love is love.
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