A proposed amendment to the Virginia state Constitution banning same-sex marriage and civil unions passed the Senate in Richmond Feb. 7. A second bill, almost a mirror image of the first, was also passed in the House that same day, despite vehement protest from Democrats.
"There are moments in our history as a nation and as a commonwealth of which we are profoundly ashamed," said Del. Adam Ebbin (D-49th) before the House vote. "The Trail of Tears of Native Americans, slavery, the denial of women's suffrage, lynching, the internment of Japanese Americans, massive resistance to desegregation, and anti-miscegenation laws right here in Virginia. Many of you will say those were different. I have no doubt, Mr. Speaker, today is one of those moments of which we will one day be ashamed. We are about to actively write discrimination into our state Constitution."
The bills, now before committees in the Senate and the House, would restrict the state's definition of “marriage.” Marriage, it states, may only exist between a man and a woman. The proposed bills, according to Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-37th), are aimed at defending the commonwealth against a "liberal, left-wing agenda that has largely been advanced in the courts". That agenda, he said, is to gain the state's "final stamp of approval" when it comes to homosexuality.
"Judges and courts have been the ones trying to pursue this," Cuccinelli said, pointing to the 2003 Supreme Court decision of Lawrence v. Texas, in which justices ruled that Texas laws surrounding homosexuality are unconstitutional. "We're trying to build up the walls, the commonwealth's legal defenses, as high as we can."
Democrats portray the debate on same-sex marriage as a human rights issue. But according to Cuccinelli, comparisons between the debate over gay marriage and the civil rights movement of the 1960s or the plight of Jewish people during the holocaust are inaccurate.
"I FIND THAT OVER the top and offensive," said Cuccinelli, a co-sponsor of the bill. "It doesn't add anything to the debate. If you were to speak with some of the black pastors who marched during the civil rights movement about this issues — I don't want to put words in their mouths — I think they would take great umbrage to the idea that those two things are somehow alike."
The bill before the Senate was put forth by Sen. Stephen Newman (R-23rd). The House bill is sponsored by Del. Kathy Byron (R-22nd). Both lawmakers failed to respond to numerous requests for an interview about the amendment. In the Senate, the bill passed 30-10. Virginia has already passed several laws banning same-sex marriage, like the 1996 Defense of Marriage act.
"I find the amendment to be quite unnecessary," said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-31st), among the 10 who voted against the amendment. "We already have laws that prohibit same-sex marriage. It seems to me we've already taken action. I find it sad that this will be in the state's Bill of Rights. It is the standard against which all of our legislation is judged. The day may come when someone wants to overturn the amendment, but it is much more difficult to change the Constitution."
In Arlington, County Board chairman Jay Fisette — an openly gay man who also sits on the board of Equality Virginia, one of the commonwealth's largest gay rights groups — said the bill's passage in the Senate marked a sad day.
"This is somewhat in the Virginia tradition, our long history of having to be pulled into the future kicking and screaming on these kinds of social issues, be it gay marriage, segregation and similar issues," Fisette said. "History will show this is a mistake and an overreaction. You read about all the violence and real problems in the world, and I can't help but wonder why so much attention is being given to this [gay marriage]."
Upcoming elections in the House, Fisette added, may be the true catalyst for these bills.
"It's a way for some rather undistinguished members of the House and Senate to get some publicity," he said. "I'm sure they'd be happy to bring this issue around every election year."
The amendment, Fisette said, could have unexpected consequences for the state.
"People won't want to work here and they won't want to live here," he said. "They won't want to live in a state where they don't feel they have some basic, human respect."
Yet Cuccinelli argued that laws banning homosexuality and gay marriage are as old as America itself.
"All 13 colonies, after they became states, made homosexual acts illegal," Cuccinelli said. "They were not only illegal, they were felonies."
ON THE HOUSE FLOOR, the proposed amendment passed 78-18. Ebbin argued the bill is simple hypocrisy. The sanctity of marriage, much heralded by Republican lawmakers, is violated by straight couples regularly, either through adultery or divorce.
"If same-gender couples in Loudoun County have automatic hospital visitation privileges, that does not weaken marriage," Ebbin said. "If a gay couple in Virginia Beach can easily inherit property, that does not threaten marriage. If two women in Campbell County can include one another on their health insurance policies rather than overburden the public health-care system if one falls ill, that does not undermine marriage."
A new generation, he continued, may bring new attitudes on same-sex marriage to Richmond.
"I have faith that the future offers a more enlightened and just Virginia," Ebbin said. "Most younger Virginians have no prejudice, no bias, no fear of those who are different. They recognize that there is no threat to the institution of marriage from loving, committed gay and lesbian couples who will one day enjoy equality under the law."