Gearing Up To Wage War Over Marriage

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 27, 2006

RICHMOND -- At the Shad Planking in Wakefield, the traditional kickoff to Virginia's political campaign season, activists passed around chunks of pearl-white wedding cake and handed out yellow and black stickers that read, "Vote Yes 4 Marriage."

Days earlier, outside a post office in Fredericksburg, another group stood with clipboards and fliers and held up pumpkin-orange signs written in block letters to promote their cause. It was tax day, and one man held a sign that said, "No Taxation With Discrimination."

These are the beginnings of a statewide political campaign not for an individual candidate but for an idea. The groups represent the two sides of the debate over the proposed amendment to the Virginia Bill of Rights that would ban same-sex marriages and civil unions and will be on the ballot statewide Nov. 7.

"The campaign is in its infancy . . . we're finding that a lot of people don't even know about the constitutional amendment," said Doug Pfaff, a landscape designer from Fredericksburg who was among about 20 people opposed to the amendment who rallied last week along Princess Anne Street downtown. "Our job between now and November is trying to not only get people educated, but get them mobilized."

More than six months before Election Day, supporters and opponents have formed coalitions they hope will raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and lure scores of volunteers to their voter outreach efforts.

"This is a campaign that has similar attributes to a campaign as if we were electing a candidate," Chris Freund, director of communications for the Family Foundation, told a group of black ministers last week. The foundation is helping to lead the effort to pass the amendment. "Except here, we're electing marriage. We're voting on marriage."

Organizers on both sides said they hope to raise enough money to fill the airwaves with radio and television ads. And they vowed to send volunteers to county fairs, clambakes and cookouts to get the vote out.

Since the adoption of the modern constitution of Virginia in 1971, the document has been altered more than 40 times, but proposed amendments have rarely engendered passionate campaigns. The last time the state's 230-year-old Bill of Rights was amended was 1996, with a new section that addressed the rights of crime victims.

"This will certainly be unique," said A.E. Dick Howard, a University of Virginia law professor who helped draft the state's modern constitution. "In most cases the amendments are so . . . technical that the first time people have heard of them is at the voting booth."

Nineteen states have passed constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriage, and six others will place the issue before voters this year. No such amendment put to voters has been defeated, but the issue continues to roil statehouses across the country. In Maryland, lawmakers debated the topic this year after a circuit court judge found the state's 33-year-old ban on same-sex marriages to be unconstitutional.

Opponents of the marriage amendment will try to convince voters that the measure is about more than "electing marriage" and might also affect unwed heterosexual couples because it says the state should not recognize "a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals." Organizers said that although they will tell voters that they should not "write discrimination" into the state constitution and that gay couples deserve civil benefits, they will largely seek to raise the specter that the amendment could harm some heterosexual couples.

"Once people understand that this is about more than just marriage, their support for it plummets," said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, campaign director for the Commonwealth Coalition, which is fighting the ballot question.

Proponents say the amendment will protect Virginia from judges who might interpret the constitution to allow such unions. And they say there is no evidence that the amendment will void contracts between unwed heterosexual couples, as opponents have warned it will.

"Our job is to make sure that the misinformation doesn't stick," said Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), chief sponsor of the constitutional amendment. He predicted that opponents will have a difficult time grabbing voters' attention with what he termed a complicated legal argument.

Proponents have aimed their message at church pastors across the state. At Saturday's meeting with the black ministers, Freund handed out DVDs titled "Why not Gay Marriage?" He also announced a "Marriage Protection Sunday" on Nov. 5, when proponents will urge pastors across the state to get their flocks to vote yes on the amendment.

The marriage amendment will be on the ballot the same day U.S. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) hopes to win reelection. In 2004, when 11 states passed similar measures, political observers said the amendments helped drive conservative Republicans to the polls and to President Bush, particularly in swing states such as Ohio. Allen includes support for the amendment in his stump speeches, and a spokesman predicted that the senator's position will help him on Election Day.

"We think Senator Allen is on the same side as the majority of Virginians," said campaign consultant Dick Wadhams.

Aides for the two Democrats vying to defeat Allen, former high-tech lobbyist Harris Miller and former Navy secretary James Webb, said their candidates oppose the amendment.

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