RICHMOND, Feb. 9 -- Virginia lawmakers are proceeding with proposals to rewrite the state Constitution so that same-sex marriages are banned and prayer in school is allowed, but the efforts require several rounds of legislative approval and a public vote.
The House and Senate voted this week to approve separate marriage resolutions, each of which would add a section to the state's bill of rights. In both versions, marriage is defined exclusively as a "union between one man and one woman."
Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William) supports the school prayer amendment but fears it will "have a more rocky road in the Senate."
(Cindy Blanchard -- Richmond Times-dispatch Via AP)
House lawmakers also passed a resolution that would alter the Constitution's declaration on religious freedoms to allow prayer in public buildings. It would add a section that says "the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including public schools, shall not be infringed."
The resolutions passed easily in the House. The Senate passed the marriage amendment by a wide margin but has not yet considered the prayer amendment.
Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who opposes both amendments, says he is not optimistic about stopping the Constitution from being altered. Ebbin is the Virginia legislature's first openly gay lawmaker.
"It's sure heading that way," he said of the same-sex marriage amendment's likely approval. "It's possible it could get slowed down, but I'm not counting on it."
Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William), who backs the prayer amendment, said he fears it will "have a more rocky road in the Senate."
Even if it passes, the amendments, and a raft of other less controversial ones proposed by lawmakers this year, have a long way to go before they appear in textbooks.
The House and Senate must agree on exactly the same wording for the amendment, something that has not happened. The House and Senate resolutions on same-sex marriage are slightly different. Those differences will have to be settled by a small group of lawmakers before the session ends Feb. 26.
If lawmakers reach consensus this year, the resolutions can be adopted without the signature of Gov. Mark R. Warner (D).
But the state Constitution requires that lawmakers adopt the same resolution after members of the House of Delegates run for reelection. Such an election will be held this November, so lawmakers could consider the constitutional amendments again in January.
The resolution that would be up for adoption next year would have to be identical to the one that had passed this year.
If that happens, lawmakers might put the proposed amendment to a vote in a statewide referendum during the next regularly scheduled election. In theory, that could happen as soon as November 2006, when Virginians are scheduled to elect their members of the U.S. House of Representatives and a senator.
If the voters approved the amendment, the Constitution would be changed as of the date specified in the ballot question.
That assumes, of course, no one challenges whether the amendment to Virginia's Constitution violates the U.S. Constitution. Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), an ardent supporter of the same-sex marriage amendment, says he expects that to happen.
"I expect the Second Coming and a challenge on this marriage amendment," he said. "It's not a matter of faith -- it's a matter of experience."
Marshall said he and others have attempted to design the marriage amendment so it would withstand such a challenge. And other states have passed similar constitutional amendments that have not been challenged successfully.
Amendments to the Virginia Constitution are not rare. Voters approved two last year: One expanded the list of officials in line to become governor in the event of a disaster; and another fixed a glitch in the state's political redistricting laws.
But Lingamfelter said he believes lawmakers are pushing the more controversial amendments because of a frustration with judges in other states who have interpreted laws to allow same-sex marriage or ban prayer in school.
"People are concerned," he said. "Are we next for a wave of activist judicial rulings?"