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Businesses Say 'No' to Marriage Amendment

Some business leaders fear the constitutional amendment would jeopardize

Fearing that a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage would stymie economic development in Virginia, a vocal handful of Northern Virginia business leaders are speaking out against the measure.

"Our history in Virginia has been about opening doors, not slamming doors shut," said J. Douglas Koelemay, managing director of Qorvis Communications, a Tysons Corner public affairs firm. "If this amendment passes, Virginia will be a place where doors are slammed shut. That's not good for business and that's not good for anybody else either."

Voters across Virginia will consider the proposed constitutional amendment on Nov. 7.

Opponents such as Koelemay say the amendment would do much more than simply prohibit same-sex marriage — which has been illegal in Virginia for 30 years.

It is so broadly worded, opponents say, that it could call into question an employer's right to extend benefits for the domestic partners of their gay and lesbian employees in committed relationships.

Specifically, the second paragraph of the amendment bans the recognition of any "legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage."

Such vague language, opponents said, could put at risk of lawsuits any business that offers its employees domestic partner benefits, such as health insurance.

"It doesn't do Virginia any good to be the one state that says partners should not be allowed to have health benefits," said Jim Dyke, a partner at McGuire Woods law firm in McLean. "From a business perspective, this amendment doesn't make any sense at all."

A SUBSTANTIAL number of Northern Virginia's largest businesses offer their unmarried employees domestic partner benefits.

The companies account for more than 100,000 jobs in Northern Virginia and upwards of $84.4 billion in revenue, according to dozens of interviews and financial disclosure statements.

Northern Virginia firms that offer partner benefits include Gannett Co. in McLean; Northrop Grumman in Reston, McLean and Herndon; AOL Time Warner in Dulles; Booz Allen Hamilton in Tysons Corner; Capital One in McLean; Freddie Mac in McLean; and Sprint/Nextel in Reston.

"It's a concern for us," said AOL spokeswoman Lauren Walinksy. "If you look beyond the amendment's first paragraph, there are some vague loopholes that would put benefits at risk."

Nationally, 51 percent of all Fortune 500 companies offer employees domestic partner health insurance benefits, according to a 2006 report from the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Furthermore, 86 percent of the country's largest businesses include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policies — a 10-fold increase over 2001.

"In a lot of same-sex couples, one of the partners will work while the other stays home to take care of the children," said Kelly Schlageter, spokeswoman for Equality Fairfax, a Northern Virginia gay and lesbian advocacy organization. "Without partner benefits, the person taking care of the children wouldn't have health care coverage."

Companies are increasingly offering domestic partner benefits, Schlageter said, because it sends an inclusive message to both clients and employees.

"It really makes a strong statement about how open and welcoming a company is," she said.

At least two business advocacy groups in Virginia have passed resolutions denouncing the proposed constitutional amendment. The groups are the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce and the Retail Alliance of Norfolk.

The Arlington Chamber of Commerce, however, has no immediate plans to take up the issue, said the organization's president Richard Doud. "I have heard absolutely zero about it up to this point," he said.

SUPPORTERS of the same-sex marriage amendment dispute that the measure would jeopardize an employer's ability to provide domestic partner benefits.

Chris Freund, director of policy and communication for the Family Foundation of Virginia, said the idea that it would endanger partner benefits is a "red herring" and a "scare tactic" by the amendment's foes.

"This is about protecting marriage and the benefits of marriage," Freund said. "Partner benefits don't have anything to do with that. Opponents to the amendment will talk about anything but the real issue at hand. We're going to see scare tactics like this all the way to November."

Virginia businesses did not have the ability to offer employees domestic partner benefits until 2005, when lawmakers narrowly approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) that extended health benefits to gay and lesbian partners.

That bill, SB 1338, was cited as a key factor in the decision by Bureau of National Affairs to relocate its offices — and 1,000 jobs — from Washington, D.C., to Arlington.

The proposed constitutional amendment would not invalidate that law, said David Clementson, a spokesman for Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R).

"No, absolutely not," he said. "It does not conflict with what this amendment would do. Absolutely not."

Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, campaign manager of The Commonwealth Coalition, which is campaigning against the amendment, said the business leaders' fears are far from scare tactics. An objective reading of the amendment's full text, she said, shows that domestic partner benefits would be endangered.

"It's a very, very bad idea," she said. "People are just beginning to wake up to the real and broad unintended consequences of this amendment."