A Bad Amendment

Sunday, September 17, 2006

SINCE 1998, 20 states have adopted constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. But not all of them have been drafted so expansively, and so carelessly, as the measure that will appear on Virginia's ballot in November, which would recognize no "union, partnership or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities or effects of marriage." The amendment is muddle-headed and absurdly broad, duplicates what is already in state law and carries the germ of a thousand unintended consequences. Virginia voters should reject it.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) opposes gay marriage, but he shares with its defenders the concern that the wording of Virginia's amendment could imperil the rights of individuals to enter into private contracts or employers to extend benefits such as health care coverage to unmarried couples. Plenty of the state's most prominent employers might face a more vexing recruiting environment if the amendment is approved.

The governor seems prepared to spend some political capital opposing the amendment but not too much; his aides say not to expect a full-court press. He has recognized from the outset that the amendment can be construed not only as banning same-sex marriages and civil unions but also as putting thousands of unmarried couples at risk of losing a host of benefits. But he is loath to hit the hustings in an all-out effort to defeat the measure, which will appear on the statewide ballot Nov. 7.

We believe that all such measures enshrine intolerance and may have cruel and discriminatory effects. Around the country, there are encouraging signs that voters and legislatures in some states that have not already adopted such amendments are balking at jumping on the bandwagon. The tide that has carried these proposals may be receding somewhat, which may be one reason for Mr. Kaine's ambivalence. He has said he would support a narrowly drawn amendment that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, as a number of states have done.

Like any politician, Mr. Kaine is entitled to pick his battles, and there's no doubt that this one would be an uphill struggle. He would have to tackle the reality of a majority of Virginians who start out opposed to gay marriage, as well as that of the state's attorney general, Robert F. McDonnell (R), who backs the measure and dismisses the idea that it is legally problematic. But the stakes, as the governor himself has defined them, are high. Defeating the amendment is a fight worth fighting wholeheartedly.

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