Gay Marriage Ban Advances in Va.

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 14, 2006

RICHMOND, Jan. 13 -- The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval Friday to legislation that will place a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage before Virginia voters in November.

The delegates voted 73 to 22 on House Joint Resolution 41, overriding appeals from opponents who said the measure could have far-reaching consequences for all unmarried couples in the state. The House must vote a final time on the resolution, but passage is almost certain. The Senate will also take up the measure during the 60-day General Assembly session, which began Wednesday.

Although the proposal passed overwhelmingly in both chambers last year, it must be approved in identical form this session before it can go to Virginia voters.

State law bans same-sex unions, but supporters of the constitutional amendment say it's necessary to clarify that Virginia is not compelled to recognize same-sex marriages or civil arrangements permitted in other states.

"We're advancing this amendment today because we trust the judgment of the people of Virginia and not the courts," said Del. Kathy J. Byron (R-Lynchburg), one of the measure's chief supporters. "Marriage is much more than just two people sharing a committed relationship. By changing the definition of marriage, the family, too, would be redefined, ultimately destroying the traditional family. And if the traditional structure of family no longer matters, what is marriage for?"

Several Democrats who oppose the measure, which would alter the state's Bill of Rights, said the language that would be presented to voters is too vague because it says in part that the Virginia Constitution should not recognize "a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals." They said this could include unwed heterosexual couples and people in other arrangements.

The Democrats and other opponents also said such language could interfere with all unmarried couples making health care decisions and with property ownership. They said the measure as written could threaten protective orders and additional safeguards for unmarried victims of domestic violence by barring all legal recognition of unmarried family or household members.

The amendment "is really dangerous and has the potential of taking away other rights from Virginians," said Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-Fairfax), who tried unsuccessfully to amend the measure on the floor. "If we're going to do this, let's do it right."

"We are far down the road of unintended consequences," said Del. James M. Scott (D-Fairfax). "We don't need to go any further. This is way over the top."

An authority on the state constitution expressed concern in an interview about the amendment's wording.

"It's pretty clear what the proposers are trying to do, but there may be some overkill here that could raise more questions than it actually answers," said A.E. Dick Howard, a professor of law at the University of Virginia and one of the drafters of the state's modern constitution.

Supporters said unmarried couples have other legal protections.

"We give the power of attorney independent of a marital relationship or a marriage-like relationship," Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who was an original sponsor of the amendment.

Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee and a supporter of the amendment, said he will ask for a legal opinion from Robert F. McDonnell (R) after he is sworn in Saturday as attorney general.

"Our intent wasn't to affect private contracts or anything like that . . . and we can't invalidate wills and shared equity agreements and things like that," Albo said.

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