A response to a question at a public forum about the separation of church and state by a conservative Democrat running in Fairfax County’s 34th State Senate District last week brought the issue of his ties to a controversial religious movement even more to the forefront.
Former State Del. Chapman “Chap” Petersen is challenging incumbent Republican Jeannemarie Devolites Davis in the 34th District, which borders the Falls Church area to the west of the Beltway. With the election only six weeks away, the two candidates squared off at a forum co-sponsored by four area gay and lesbian rights organizations last Thursday in the City of Fairfax.
Petersen has already been under scrutiny by some gay and lesbian leaders because of his on-going alignment with those parishioners at the Truro Church in Fairfax who were part of a high-profile defection from the national Episcopal Church denomination last December.
That action was fueled in large part by opposition to the elevation of an openly-gay clergyman to standing as a bishop in the Episcopal Church in 2003. The defectors have subsequently aligned with an Anglican bishop from Nigeria who believes that persons should be jailed for merely being gay.
While Petersen has defended his church affiliation by saying he’s been a member of the Truro Church since his infancy, he has not yet answered questions about why he chose to go with the defectors in his church instead of remaining with the “continuing Episcopalians” in that congregation, and if such a decision could have any public policy implications.
When he finally responded to repeated requests from the News-Press for an interview as it went to press Wednesday, he stated, “I don’t agree with your premise that my membership in a church singles me out for special treatment,” and set the condition that he’d only to respond to questions “relevant to the race” that were also asked of his opponent. He also insisted that all exchanges between him and the News-Press be “monitored” by a third party.
While Petersen has dismissed the Truro Church issue as a matter of his personal faith, some gays and lesbians have remained skeptical concerning the potential public policy consequences of Petersen’s decision last December. The subject has also come up on some popular pro-Democratic blogs in the state.
Some have done “money trail” analyses of the conservative push for schisms within mainstream Protestant denominations in the U.S., including the Episcopalian Church, and found them backed by powerful, moneyed arch-right wing interests.
Nonetheless, Petersen has received the endorsement of the Virginia Partisans Gay and Lesbian Democratic Club.
But if anything, Petersen’s comments last Thursday may have served only to raise the concerns of others even further.
Petersen, a young attorney seldom seen in public without wearing a bow tie, arrived late to Thursday’s forum, but once on the same platform with Devolites Davis, was quickly hit with a written question from the audience that read, “Do you believe religion has a place in politics when there is a clear separation between church and state.”
Petersen replied, “My answer would be yes.”
He went on to say, “I think that being Christian is something that is important to me. To be honest, if I didn’t have my faith I might not be sitting here. I might be doing something else.”
He went on, “The bottom line is that I do think religion is important. It’s not to say I want to take the Book of Leviticus and drop it into the state code. I don’t. But the bottom line is that religious traditions mean something. We can all argue about what they mean, but to say they are useless or irrelevant or meaningless, I can’t go along with that. So I think the answer to your question is that they do have a place.”
It was not the first time Petersen invoked his personal faith at the forum. On two other occasions he brought it up on his own, without being asked, once saying, “I am a Christian and I believe in sin,” and later saying, “I am a Christian and I believe my religion saves people. I am not embarrassed or apologetic for that.”
In this context, Petersen conceded that when in the state legislator as a delegate, he voted to put the so-called Marshall-Newman Amendment banning gay marriage on the ballot, something that Devolites Davis also did.
“To be honest,” he said, “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.” But he said he voted against the amendment last November because he found its “excesses” to be “gratuitous.” On the other hand, he didn’t pretend that gays and lesbians would agree with him on a lot. “But I’m here,” he said. “Beat me up.”
He insisted the value in electing him would be to give Democrats a majority in the state senate. As for himself, he said, “I am one little lawyer from Fairfax City,” not referencing the fact that he’d unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nod to run statewide for lieutenant governor in 2005.
In her closing remarks, Devolites Davis zeroed in on Petersen’s reference to “sin,” to which Petersen injected, “I was talking about myself.” Still, the term implied judgment, she said, and “none of us should judge anyone else.”
Devolites Davis acknowledged that she was raised a Catholic, but her answer to the question of the separation of church and state Thursday was different than Petersen’s. “I think our religious beliefs shape who we are and clearly have an impact on where each legislator comes from,” she said.
“But when you are talking about the separation of church and state, doing your job as a legislator, considering bills and deciding if religion should be placed on a statute, I would say the answer is no,” she continued. “I think that when we make those decisions, it is very important that we have that separation because there is so much diversity and people’s beliefs are so different…We need to make a very conscious effort that what’s in the statute and what the state does is different and separate from what religion would require you to do.”
Otherwise, the two candidates agreed on the merits of legislative measures to extend the civil rights of lesbians and gays. The event was co-sponsored by Equality Fairfax, Equality Virginia, the Virginia Partisans Gay and Lesbian Democratic Club and the Log Cabin Republicans of Virginia. The groups are planning a forum of state delegate candidates next Tuesday. Equality Fairfax has posted an audio taping of last week’s forum on its web site.