RICHMOND, Jan. 13 -- Gay rights activists said Thursday that they are prepared for a protracted struggle against a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would ban same-sex marriage.
Members of Equality Virginia, the state's largest gay rights group, acknowledged they are facing an uphill fight in a state that already bars same-sex marriage and civil unions. Delegates and senators said in interviews that each of the chambers appears ready to support the amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
The Rev. Kharma Amos addresses a news conference at the Capitol in Richmond, calling for an end to discrimination against same-sex couples.
(Steve Helber -- AP)
But because the proposed amendment cannot go before voters until 2006, the opponents said, they have time to organize their base, establish a political action committee and continue to lobby lawmakers. They outlined their strategy at a Capitol news conference Thursday that was packed with supporters from across the state.
A constitutional amendment must pass two separate sessions of the legislature. Then it goes to the state's voters.
"Time is on our side," said Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia. "What we hope to do is educate the public, put a face on our issues and continue to show that Virginia can be a place for us all."
The group also said it hopes to repeal a law passed last year that it said limits contracts for same-sex couples and hopes to gain companies the right to extend domestic partnership benefits to gay men and lesbians. Virginia is the only state that prevents private companies from doing so, gay rights activists said.
Supporters of the constitutional amendment said Virginia voters are in the mainstream of dozens of states across the country that have banned same-sex marriage by statute or constitutional amendment.
"There's a pretty strong movement at the grass-roots level. People are saying other states have amended their constitutions and Virginia should, too," said Sen. William C. Wampler Jr. (R-Bristol), a member of the Senate leadership who represents a district in southwest Virginia.
Those who favor an amendment to the constitution said the legislation is needed to prevent state judges from interfering with Virginia's Affirmation of Marriage Act, which bans gay marriage and civil unions. They said they wanted to ensure that a Virginia judge cannot follow the path of the 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in ruling that gay people have the right to marry, opening up the possibility that other states would have to recognize those marriage licenses.
In about a half-dozen states, courts are hearing pleas to extend the rights of marriage to gay couples. Washington is the only state that has such a case at the Supreme Court level, according to the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. So far, there are no such cases in Virginia.
"Any liberal judge right now can usurp our current policy," said John A. Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake), who is sponsoring resolutions that call for the constitutional amendment.
Gay rights activists said such a ruling was unlikely, making the constitutional amendment unnecessary. Because lawmakers in Virginia select judges, justices would fear being removed from the bench if they ruled in favor of same-sex unions, activists said.
Democrats who oppose the amendment will put up a fight in the Senate, said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington). They will try to convince their colleagues that an amendment would be excessive, because Virginia already outlaws same-sex marriage.
"I think there are a lot of people on the [Republican] side who know it's not a good thing, but they're afraid not to vote for it," said Sen. Patricia S. Ticer (D-Alexandria). "It's another form of discrimination against a category of people because of who they are."