A Gut Feeling on Va.'s Gay Marriage Vote

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, May 18, 2006

Nineteen times in 19 states, voters have been asked if they want a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Nineteen times, those amendments have won. And still, opponents of such amendments keep avoiding the core of the issue.

There are problems with the wording of the amendment, they'll say, or there's no need to reiterate what the law already states, or the pro side is a bunch of bigots. But almost never do they come right out and say that homosexuality exists, and most Americans know and love someone who is gay, and the country should figure out what it wants to do about that.

Virginians will decide this fall whether to amend the state constitution to define marriage as "a union between one man and one woman" and to ban any other "union, partnership or other legal status" that has the benefits or effects of marriage. Listen to both campaigns, and it sounds as if everything's settled:

"The vast majority of Virginians have their minds made up that marriage is between one man and one woman," says Victoria Cobb of the Family Foundation, the big player on the pro-amendment side. "To win, we just have to make sure that voters turn out."

"If you ask Virginians, 'Should gay marriage be legal?' they say no," says Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, who runs the Commonwealth Coalition, the main anti-amendment campaign. The group's polling shows that 77 percent of Virginia Republicans and 54 percent of all voters would support such an amendment.

If everything's settled, why are both sides raising millions and planning TV ads and grass-roots efforts that pretty much mimic the campaigns waged in all those other states?

Despite 19 straight wins across the nation, the pro-amendment side worries about "a middle group of people who have always known where they stood on marriage, but now their beliefs are being challenged," says Dean Welty, a retired Foreign Service officer who started the Valley Family Forum in Harrisonburg.

"I come from a biblical background," Welty says, "where we can say, 'the Bible says,' and that's enough. But now we have to make our argument on more secular grounds."

But Cobb's group doesn't see much of a middle among voters. So her campaign is aimed at boosting turnout by those who already believe marriage needs defending. "Pastors and churches are a lot of our effort," she says. The Family Foundation is distributing sample sermons to ministers, arguing that marriage "serves the purpose of regulating sexual activity by channeling and containing it within specific boundaries." The sermon decries the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down Texas's sodomy ban as a "nightmarish vision" of society's future.

But while the pro side argues morality, the anti-amendment side focuses on legalities: What impact would the wording of the amendment have on unmarried couples, both gay and straight?

The anti campaigns believe making a positive case for same-sex marriage would lead to even more lopsided losses. So Gastanaga has seized on some softness in Virginians' views to argue that even if you oppose gay marriage, this amendment goes too far.

Her side's polling shows large majorities of Virginians supporting the rights of gays to visit partners in the hospital and to inherit property from a partner. The campaign therefore focuses on whether the amendment would prevent unmarried couples from exercising such rights.

"Virginians fundamentally want to be left alone, in their pocketbook and in their bedroom," says Gastanaga, a veteran Richmond lobbyist who has worked on several Democratic campaigns. "I tell people I am speaking on this from the conservative point of view: It's conservative to demand limited government. And it's conservative to oppose something when you don't know what its impact would be."

Nice try, and surely Virginia is a league leader in leave-me-aloneism, but voters won't base their decisions about gay marriage on semantics. Republican activists are thrilled that nine more states are voting this year on marriage amendments because they know that on personal issues, people tend to vote their gut, and the anti side is unwilling to engage at the gut level.

If Virginia follows the example of other states, Sen. George Allen's reelection campaign will happily tout his defense of marriage while his Democratic opponent tries to have it all ways, simultaneously announcing that marriage is between one man and one woman while offering queasy support to gay groups and questioning the wording of the amendment.

There is, of course, an emotional appeal to be made for gay unions -- after all, most Americans know someone in a committed gay relationship -- but Democratic candidates generally won't go there.

Whatever your beliefs about sexuality and the state's role in marriage, one thing is certain: When one side goes straight to voters' emotions while the other asks them to examine the legalities, the outcome is all but assured.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company