As Campaign Days Dwindle, Marriage Issue Heats Up in Va.

At St. Albans Episcopal Church in Annandale, Laura Robertson of the Commonwealth Coalition speaks to parishioners about the amendment.
At St. Albans Episcopal Church in Annandale, Laura Robertson of the Commonwealth Coalition speaks to parishioners about the amendment. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 28, 2006

The hundreds of Sunday congregants came to their feet as the Rev. Mark Becton, of Grove Avenue Baptist Church outside Richmond, finished his sermon.

"Believing that God ordained marriage as the institution between one woman and one man . . . I'm voting 'yes' for the marriage amendment," he exhorted, referring to the state constitutional amendment that will be on the Nov. 7 ballot. "I'm voting 'yes' to restate what I know God intended and what I believe our founding fathers understood: Marriage is the union of one man and one woman."

Five days later and across town, Dyana Mason, a gay-rights activist helping to lead the fight against the ballot question, was standing before her own kind of congregation, arguing the opposite: "This amendment is not about defining marriage," she said to a group of youth organizers at Virginia Commonwealth University, referring to the wording of the ballot question, which says that the state will not recognize a relationship between unwed couples that seeks to "approximate the . . . effects of marriage."

"It's important for us . . . to remind people . . . to read the amendment because it will do so much more than just ban gay marriage," she said.

Similar messages will go out from pulpits, by phone and on radio and television and will appear on front doorsteps over the next 10 days as organizers, religious leaders and volunteers for and against the amendment that would ban same-sex marriages, civil unions and domestic partnerships wage well-financed campaigns to win over Virginians.

Their efforts took on fresh urgency this week after the New Jersey Supreme Court directed legislators there to craft a bill offering same-sex couples the same rights as opposite-sex couples. Supporters of the amendment pounced on the decision, saying they will use the New Jersey action to rally conservative voters to the polls.

"It's definitely going to be part of our talking points," said Chris Freund, spokesman for the Family Foundation.

Opponents of the ballot measure recognized the decision's importance to their effort as well, almost immediately sending an e-mail to followers saying that "we can't let this issue get hijacked by those who seek cynically to provoke voters into unreasoned reflex reactions."

As campaign armies fan out, the two sides will try to appeal to different instincts. Supporters are trying to rally their legions by appealing to their strong-felt opposition to same-sex marriage, whereas opponents will try to get voters to set aside their emotions about gay marriage and think about the specific wording of the amendment.

"If this amendment focuses on gay marriage . . . if we get diverted to only an emotional argument, we lose," said Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette (D), who became the state's first openly gay elected official in 1997. "If we focus on what the amendment actually says, we can win."

Same-sex marriages and civil unions are illegal in Virginia, but supporters say the amendment is necessary to protect against judges who might deem the statute unconstitutional, which happened in Massachusetts in 2003.

Polls have shown that the idea has received consistent support, but opponents also see an opportunity for victory. A Washington Post poll released this month found that 53 percent of Virginia voters back the amendment and 43 percent oppose it but that the difference narrowed to a virtual tie when respondents were asked to consider arguments for and against the measure.

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