By Kim Walter
FRONT ROYAL -- Valentine's Day is quickly approaching and with it comes the feeling of love. This week, a local church is using the romantic theme to promote love for all.
The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Shenandoah Valley will be conducting "rolling vigils" to support marriage equality at different locations in the area each day. On Monday, a group of less than 10 church members held a vigil in front of the Warren County courthouse.
The group was seen more than heard, as members waved and smiled to passers-by, holding signs that stated "Love is never wrong," "Equality is a human right," and "It's not about gay or straight, it's about human rights," among others. They refrained from any chanting or shouting, and didn't seem to get any vocal opposition in return.
The Rev. Paul Britner said he and members of his congregation were "pleasantly surprised" by the overall reaction in town.
"Based on reputation, I expected Front Royal to the the most conservative location of all this week," he said, holding a banner which said, "Standing on the side of love."
"But anyone who has come up to speak to us has been positive, and we've mostly gotten a lot of waves, thumbs-ups, and smiles," he added. "Not every one is going to agree with us, though."
The group got an inkling that there was some concern over the vigil when a Front Royal police officer pulled up to the location to "check things out."
The church members were under the impression that they didn't need a permit to be at the intersection of South Royal Avenue and Main Street since there were so few people participating. However, Town Manager Steve Burke showed up to inform them that they did need to fill out an application and all would be well.
"They have to have a permit since they're on public property," Burke said. "It really helps to serve as a point of contact if it was needed for some reason."
Burke added that the group also had to agree to not obstruct the right-of-way on the sidewalk, and had to keep noise down, though they were in compliance of both rules at the time.
"It all worked out in the end. Apparently a few people saw us and wanted us to go," Britner said.
The vigil event is new to the church, Britner added, but holding something for marriage equality around Valentine's Day is not a new idea.
"We believe in a fully inclusive society, but we also think the time is right for this," he said. "The president has made a change in his policy, the Supreme Court has a couple decisions to make this spring ... we just know that when marriage equality is in the news, it's the right time to make a move and push for it."
Britner said he and his congregation also feel a "special calling" to be visible on certain issues where the church may be the only one speaking out. The church is in the minority when it comes to advocating for marriage equality, as many religious organizations point to the Bible when not supporting the change.
However, Britner said the Unitarian church is on the "God loves everyone side" of things. While the church accepts the Bible as an historical document, Britner said they aren't bound to certain parts of it.
"We take the inspiration behind the document and leave the rest behind," he said.
The reverend said parts of the Bible don't apply to modern society, which is important because the document was written by humans who were influenced by their own times, places and cultures. He said he believes that currently there is a shift in people's willingness to put the Bible into context.
"As a minister, I see marriage equality receiving the same kind of acceptance and change in the relationship to the Bible that our nation had to go through to get rid of slavery, allow divorce, protect children from abuse ... all the things that were part of the Bible culturally," he said. "I wouldn't project on any opponent of marriage equality that they favor slavery. A vast majority of people have gotten past that, and we can get past this, too."
Britner said he hopes that with each vigil will come more participation. The group also will be handing out white "tie-the-knot" ribbons to support same-sex couples having the benefits of marriage which are available to heterosexual couples.
"People can love whoever they want, so that's not the point of marriage equality," he said. "The point is to get same-sex couple the same legal benefits that sustain other families."
Another reason the church is doing multiple vigils is to attempt to reach out to the community where their most of their congregation resides. Located in Stephens City, 40 percent of Unitarian church members come from Winchester. Britner said he hopes they can continue to draw more from other areas of the valley.
The vigils take place each day from 11 to 1 p.m. On Sunday, the church's youth group, who made the signs, will hold their own vigil after church at 6380 Valley Pike.
"People don't need the government to tell them who to love," Britner said. "But, unfortunately, they need the government to get the kinds of rights that shouldn't be denied based on sexual orientation."
The church plans to hold other outreach events promoting marriage equality throughout the year.
The rest of the week's vigils will be held at: