RICHMOND, Jan. 10 -- Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly are preparing resolutions requesting an amendment to the state Constitution that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, mirroring efforts by states across the nation to further restrict same-sex marriages.
Virginia is already one of 43 states that ban the recognition of same-sex marriages. But proponents of the resolutions say that a constitutional amendment is necessary to protect existing state law from court challenges. They add that Virginia should join the 11 states that passed such amendments on Election Day. The victories have energized social conservatives across the country and are credited by some with helping President Bush win reelection in November.
Del. Robert G. Marshall wants the issue "out of . . . the courts."
Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandia) will be online today at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the upcoming legislative session which begins Wednesday in Richmond.
"The people should be the ultimate authority on issues like this," said Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), the sponsor of one of the several constitutional amendment resolutions that will be submitted. A constitutional amendment also "takes it out of the hands of the courts," he said, and "ensures that activist judges can't usurp" state law.
Opponents of the measure in Virginia said a constitutional amendment is unnecessary, particularly after the passage last year of a bill that vastly limits the ability of two people of the same sex to enter into contracts with one other.
That bill, House Bill 751, added a ban against recognition of same-sex civil unions or partnership arrangements to Virginia's "Affirmation of Marriage Act." Gay activists say they are looking to challenge the law on constitutional grounds.
"A constitutional amendment is piling on, it seems to me," said Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who became Virginia's first openly gay state lawmaker when he was elected in 2003. He added that the sponsors' assertions that such a bill would strengthen the institution of marriage seemed misplaced.
"I can't see how this bill will make heterosexual marriage stronger," he said.
Politicians expect at least two other state legislatures -- Maryland and Kansas -- to take up the issue this year. Seventeen states have constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.
"The national elections in November were a clear statement by the American people that . . . traditional marriage matters," said Victoria Cobb, legislative director of the Family Foundation, an advocacy group that supports the initiatives. The resolution is one of the group's legislative priorities unveiled Monday. "Legislators in Richmond should pay close attention to the message sent by voters" across the country, Cobb said.
To amend the state Constitution, the resolution would have to pass during two separate sessions of the legislature and then be put to the state's voters in a referendum. The earliest it could be up for a statewide vote would be 2006.
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has said that the existing state bans on same-sex marriages make a constitutional amendment unnecessary. Because the legislature's action would be a resolution, Warner would not have to sign the measure for it to be placed on the ballot.
Gay rights advocates, who plan to unveil their own legislative priorities this week -- including a bill that would repeal House Bill 751 -- said that it was unwise to amend the state Constitution for such purposes. Some said it was purely a political move in a year in which all 100 seats of the House of Delegates are up for election.
"Domestic relations should not be codified in the state Constitution," said Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia. "We see it as an attempt by some here in Virginia to exploit what they perceive as a mandate from the results of the last election."
The constitutional amendment measures are part of a raft of bills offered by the state's socially conservative lawmakers.
Other legislative ideas include proposals to require that physicians administer anesthesia to a fetus older than 20 weeks before an abortion and to end state funding for Planned Parenthood. The group of lawmakers also supports tightening health standards on clinics where abortions are performed to make them comply with hospital standards.
Democrats in the House and Senate said the clinic legislation was a veiled attempt to restrict access to abortions. Many clinics would not be able to retrofit their facilities to hospital standards, they said, potentially driving them out of business.
"Many of the standards are irrelevant for the quality of care," said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), who said the rules were for things like janitors' closets. Referring to the fetal pain bill, she said that "there is evidence that shows that the procedure could endanger the health of the mother."