Constitutional Amendment

Marshall Admits No Doubts About Marriage

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Write
Saturday, November 4, 2006

The debate was over, and the stately atrium at the University of Virginia School of Law was nearly empty. But Del. Robert G. Marshall, a Prince William County Republican who wryly refers to himself as Virginia's "chief homophobe," was just warming up to his next showdown over same-sex marriage.

"There is a natural order of things, a natural order where gay marriage is an impossibility," he said, books tucked under his arm and waving a hand for emphasis, like the disheveled college professor he often resembles. "For example, a woman's arm is constructed at a certain angle so that she can adequately cradle a baby. This is the way we're created. There are just certain things that nature intended."

Three law students stared at him. One shook her head. Another gave a loud sigh and walked away.

"I know that might not be a popular view around here, but there is a created order that we must all follow," Marshall said.

For nearly 15 years, Marshall, one of the conservative state's most conservative lawmakers, has been wielding a heavy stick marked with his brand of moral and religious certainty. With the values he learned in a staunchly Catholic household, mixed with years of work as a legislative researcher on Capitol Hill and the pugnacious spirit of the amateur judo combatant he once was, he has become one of the leading voices in Virginia's conservative movement.

Marshall's latest effort to promote his moral code is as an author and chief champion of an amendment on Tuesday's ballot that would constitutionally ban same-sex marriages and civil unions and prevent Virginia from legally recognizing any relationship that seeks to "approximate the . . . effects of marriage." Marshall has spent this fall campaigning for the measure across Virginia -- in debates and on TV, before civic organizations, college students and anyone else who will grant him a few minutes and an open ear.

For Marshall, the amendment is a way to ink a view of traditional values into the state's highest document and to stop what he calls a "homosexual agenda" from further damaging society.

"If you have no definition for marriage, and if it's based on a whim rather than some reasonable classification, you're all over the ballpark . . . you cannot contain it," said Marshall, 62, during the forum at U-Va., where he debated Evan Wolfson, a leading national supporter of same-sex marriage rights. Two students had their backs turned in protest as Marshall spoke. "There is no middle ground here," he said.

Some opponents of the measure say that existing statutes outlawing same-sex marriage are sufficient and that the amendment would jeopardize rights of all unmarried couples. Others, including Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), also say the measure would hurt the state's business environment.

Marshall's critics said what they see in his push for the amendment is what they have always seen from him: an effort to thrust his narrow view of religion into law -- in this case, in conflict with the religious freedoms that they say the state constitution enshrines.

"He will go to any lengths to promote his religious view, and I think that's dangerous. He's doing the same thing with this marriage amendment," said Del. Katherine B. Waddell (I-Richmond), who clashed with Marshall for several years when she was the state chair for a national Republican abortion rights group. "He's imposing his own religious views onto us. That's exactly what he's doing. He's interjecting his religion into legislating."

That Marshall, a devout Roman Catholic, is one of the front men on the same-sex marriage debate is no surprise. Since he first went to Richmond in 1992, he has become a leading social warrior in the General Assembly, fighting against abortion rights, sex education, feminists and "eco-terrorists." He has challenged James Madison University for stocking morning-after contraceptives and objected to George Mason University using public money to host liberal filmmaker Michael Moore. In 1998, he defended the family of a Virginia man who was kept in a vegetative state against the wishes of his wife, saying Hugh Finn had a right to be kept alive with a feeding tube.

If Marshall's moral views are clear, he is more circumspect about what motivates him. He says that much of his work is informed by his interpretation of Christian principles, but beyond that he only says, "To allow ourselves to succumb to these deviations is to miss out on the whole of human existence."

A District native and one-time Kennedy Democrat who abandoned the party when George McGovern became its standard bearer, Marshall is strong on other issues, part of the reason he has been able to withstand political challenges. He is just as passionate about limiting growth in Washington's outer suburbs as he is about abortion and same-sex marriage, often waging as intense a battle against developers as he does against Planned Parenthood.

"He isn't a one-trick pony," said Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. (R-Fairfax). "You go up and talk to people in his district, and they may not agree with him on abortion, but they support him on land use."

Still, Marshall's political skills have not lessened concerns from detractors that as he has tried to promote his moral code, he has infringed on the rights of others.

"He's extremely bright and can be very funny, but what he can't see is how his beliefs are cruel to other people," said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax). "He doesn't get that connection."

Marshall dismisses such attacks with characteristic aplomb. But he also describes tussles with his opponents in the same way he talks about his days of getting into schoolyard brawls: "Once you're in the battle, you never give up. Never."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company