Ban on Same-Sex Unions Added to Va. Constitution

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions in Virginia passed easily yesterday, adding the state to more than 20 others that have prohibited the practice.

The measure was strongly backed in all parts of the state except for Northern Virginia, where a majority of voters appeared to agree with the argument that the amendment would affect all unmarried couples, not just gay ones.

Amendment supporters in Virginia said the early returns demonstrated that their message of protecting traditional marriage had resonated with voters, despite efforts of opponents to characterize the amendment as writing discrimination into the state Bill of Rights.

"Despite an incredibly difficult political environment, a closer-than-anticipated Senate race, a well-funded opposition and a media that ignored the real question on the ballot, the measure passed," said Victoria Cobb, executive director of the Family Foundation, which helped organize support for the amendment. "All that matters tonight is that marriage is protected in the commonwealth. We can say once and for all that Virginians have rejected redefining marriage."

Voters who backed the amendment said they saw the measure as an opportunity to enshrine their belief in traditional marriage in the state's fundamental document. Several also said that they had no animosity toward gay people but that marriage was an institution that should be reserved for heterosexual couples.

"I'm not an ultraconservative when it comes to homosexuals. I have some wonderful friends who are homosexual, but I think marriage is between a man and a woman," said Ann Potocnak, 37, of Prince William County.

Opponents suggested that the effort to explain their position -- that the amendment would harm a broad swath of Virginians -- would have benefited from more time and advertising.

"Obviously, we're disappointed," said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, campaign director for the Commonwealth Coalition, the group leading the opposition. "Even though we reached out as much as we could, the bottom line is that we ran out of time and money that we needed to convert as many voters as we needed. I remain convinced that an informed voter was a no voter."

Virginia was one of eight states to have constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage on ballots yesterday, and voters approved them in Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Voters in Arizona made that the first state to defeat a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Two other Virginia constitutional amendments -- one that would allow churches to incorporate and another that would give the General Assembly authority to allow local governments to offer tax breaks to certain homeowners -- also gained voter approval by wide margins.

Even though same-sex marriages and civil unions are illegal in Virginia, supporters said the amendment was necessary to protect against judges who might rule that the current statute is unconstitutional, as happened in Massachusetts in 2003. They also pointed to a decision late last month by the New Jersey Supreme Court requiring that state to provide gay couples with the same rights as heterosexual ones as reason to back the proposal.

Opponents of the measure, who raised more than $1 million during the race, focused their campaign on the second and third lines of the ballot question, which read in part that Virginia would not create a legal status for unmarried couples that sought to "approximate . . . the effects of marriage."

They said that the wording was too broad and that once Virginians understood that the amendment would also ban civil unions and domestic partnerships, they would vote against it. They were backed by a slew of legal experts and Democratic state politicians, including Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who campaigned against the measure throughout the fall. Kaine also raised concerns about the amendment's effect on the state's business climate.

Supporters rejected the argument that the measure would affect all couples, citing a legal brief prepared by Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) that argued that the rights of unwed couples to enter into contracts would not be threatened by the amendment because such rights flow from common law, not solely from marriage.

Voters who supported the amendment appeared to be unconcerned about -- or unaware of -- the opponents' argument. In many cases, supporters said that their belief in traditional marriage overrode any concerns about potential impacts.

"I feel [same-sex couples] should have rights as far as benefits are concerned, but I feel marriage should be between a man and a woman," said Chris Murray, 36, a mortgage broker from Fairfax County. He said he realized that there was a chance the amendment would lead to the loss of legal rights for same-sex couples, but "you can't vote 'maybe' or 'kind of,' " he said.

Those who voted against the ballot question said they believed that the amendment was unnecessary, with several calling it a cynical distraction from real issues affecting residents.

"It's already there. Why go on and drag this out, just because some religious groups want to exclude certain things from certain people that have different lifestyles?" asked Frans Hagen, 72, a retired restaurant executive from Annandale who runs an education foundation.

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