In the Thick of It: Gay-Nuptials Fight

(James M. Thresher - Twp)
By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2006

The yellow-and-black placards that read "Vote Yes 4 Marriage" are starting to appear in leafy suburban cul-de-sacs. So are groups of Northern Virginia activists, walking the streets every third Saturday of the month, ringing doorbells and passing out literature with "Vote No, Virginia!" emblazoned across the top.

A campaign for the hearts and minds of voters is emerging. On the November ballot is this question: Should the state amend its constitution to ban same-sex marriages?

Twenty states have made such a change to their constitution since 2004. Election Day is not quite four months away, but the door-to-door effort to educate, cajole and persuade voters on this issue will intensify in the coming weeks.

A key battleground for votes on the amendment, which would also ban civil unions, will be the Washington suburbs, said activists on both sides of the issue. The Commonwealth Coalition, the lead organization working to persuade voters to reject the question, has set up a regional office in a McLean office park. Family Foundation Action, a group advocating for the amendment, also has a full-time Northern Virginia coordinator to reach churches and other civic organizations.

With the Washington suburbs becoming a larger part of the state's electorate, activists have started to haunt church picnics and local fairs and to organize private gatherings to raise money.

The area is particularly important to opponents, who see recent Democratic victories in Northern Virginia by local and statewide candidates, including Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, as evidence that the region is becoming more politically moderate. Supporters are quick to point out, however, that they are approaching their fight in a nonpartisan way.

"Northern Virginia will be pivotal to opponents hoping to defeat the amendment," said Jamin Raskin, a professor of constitutional law at American University who has studied such amendments across the country and is a Democratic candidate for the Maryland Senate. "It will be crucial if they want to contain any damage they sustain in other parts of Virginia."

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Virginia law defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman and does not allow for same-sex civil unions, but proponents say that the amendment is needed in case courts order the state to recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions granted in other states.

Opponents say that the language, which could alter the state's 230-year-old Bill of Rights, would have unintended consequences because it says in part that the Virginia Constitution should not recognize "a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals." They said this could affect unwed heterosexual couples and people in other arrangements.

They say such language also could interfere with unmarried couples' decisions on health care and property ownership. They say it could threaten protective orders and additional safeguards for unmarried victims of domestic violence by barring legal recognition of unmarried family or household members.

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