Va. Marriage Debate A Hotbed of Irony

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Somehow, whether there's a war on or Americans are trying to figure out how to pay for gas or health care, election campaigns manage to be about sex.

Oh, and religion, too.

In Virginia, where Sen. George Allen apparently believes voters' main concern is the explicit nature of the sex scenes in challenger Jim Webb's novels, next week's ballot includes a proposal to amend the state constitution to make triple-sure that marriage is defined as one man living with one woman. The state already has two laws that say this, but Bob Marshall, the state delegate from Prince William County who proposed the amendment, says laws are not enough.

Here's the curious thing about Virginia's marriage debate: The folks from more strictly religious backgrounds -- people who believe most fervently in the need to protect marriage in its traditional form -- are the ones clamoring for a strong government role in marriage. The more secular folks -- those who are more open to allowing other adult living arrangements--are the ones saying that religious faiths should be left to define marriage for themselves.

Isn't that just a little bit strange?

At a debate about the marriage amendment the other night in Manassas, Bruce Roemmelt -- a retired firefighter, a Unitarian and the Democratic challenger who lost to Marshall in last year's legislative election -- said this vote is about protecting "religious rights."

"My minister is protected in her right to consecrate relationships as our faith interprets them," Roemmelt said. "Under the constitution of Virginia right now, my church gets to do as it believes, and Bob's church gets to do as it believes. We should be dealing with marriages in our churches."

Marshall, a Republican and a Catholic who is a vocal advocate for a state role in codifying marriage, cited the anthropologist Margaret Mead to argue that "all societies find a way to regulate sexual relationships." The state must protect "this most fundamental relationship" because "there's a destabilization going on in society right now," Marshall said. Children must be guaranteed "a mother and a father because of the complementary qualities and talents of men and women."

A defender of traditional values quotes an anthropologist who believed that sexual orientation often changes over the course of a lifetime, and an advocate for gay rights rests his case on the idea that the church is better suited than the state to judge the quality of human relationships.

Is this a great country or what?

People on both sides found the scene at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Manassas inspiring. Marshall and Roemmelt clearly enjoyed debating each other. The respectful crowd heard arguments on a far higher level than the spiteful, small-minded "gotcha" silliness that dominates the races for Senate in Virginia and Maryland.

(Less than 24 hours later, my e-mail filled with more nonsense from Virginia's Senate race: Allen announced that "I'm for marriage between a man and a woman while my opponent is against it." This was a willful misstatement of Webb's position, which is that marriage is between a man and a woman but that this amendment is bad news because its language could strip all unmarried couples, heterosexual or homosexual, of legal protections.)

The polls suggest that this amendment will pass, and I couldn't find anyone at the debate whose mind had changed over the course of the campaign. Northern Virginians oppose the amendment by 55 to 42 percent, according to a Washington Post poll, but voters in the rest of the state say they'll vote Yes by 58 to 38 percent.

If that's how the vote turns out, it will reflect some mix of the deeply felt religious and moral objections Marshall expresses and the "politics of exclusion and politics of separating out those who we're different from," as Anne Holton, wife of Gov. Tim Kaine and a former juvenile court judge, put it.

Marshall contends that gay people are doing harm to one another and to children. He cited social science research and legal cases that led him to conclude that "children with homosexual parents do worse in various measures," that gays are more likely to "die early deaths and suffer from psychological disorders" and that without this amendment, "you're going to see the march of the gay agenda."

Roemmelt didn't need to quote studies or statistics. Rather, he asked voters to recognize that people who live in loving relationships are more likely to do well in life than those who don't. And he urged Virginians to show respect for James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and George Mason, who knew that a constitution should set up a framework--and that's all. "This amendment deals with the kind of detail meant to be taken care of by statute, not in the constitution," Roemmelt said.

The founders, he said, "did not let emotions or fears rule them." They expected that those who came after them "would continue their tradition of justice and fairness" by rejecting the abuse of the constitution for crass, fleeting political purpose.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company