The Virginia House, paving the way for sweeping changes in the state's rape laws, today approved a bill that would broaden a person's ability to file criminal charges against his or her spouse for sexual assault.

The proposed law would allow a wife or husband to file rape charges against his or her spouse in cases of forced sexual intercourse when the victim receives serious physical injuries. Under current law, a spouse can be prosecuted for marital rape only when the couple is living apart.

"I knew it was a difficult subject," Del. Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D-Norfolk), the bill's sponsor, said after today's emotional debate on the House floor. He said that if the bill becomes law, Virginia would have one of the most progressive marital rape laws in the nation.

The proposed spousal rape law was one of dozens of bills, including a measure to weaken substantially the state's conflict-of-interest law, approved by the House in a marathon Sunday session designed to meet the midsession deadline for turning over its bills to the Senate.

The House approved the marital rape bill in a voice vote today and is scheduled to take final action on the measure Monday. The bill then will go to the Senate for action.

Only about half of the states have tackled the controversial issue of marital rape legislatively. In many states, the marriage contract gives spouses blanket immunity from such prosecution.

The proposed Virginia law stems partially from a widely publicized 1982 Fairfax County case in which a man coerced his way into the apartment of his wife, from whom he had been separated for more than a year, and sexually assulted her. In what was believed to be the first case of its kind tried in the state, a jury found the husband guilty of attempted rape.

Many of the issues that have been raised in a national debate over the subject were voiced by lawmakers today.

"A husband who is married to his wife 20 years and has sex against her will can receive the same imprisonment as a stranger would," argued Del. Royston Jester III (R-Lynchburg). "Frankly, I don't think that's fair."

"He has kind of an older view of the situation," Moss charged after the debate. "He doesn't have the modern view of women's rights."

If the spouse is successfully prosecuted for rape, he or she could receive a prison term of five years to life.

Moss told his colleagues that the proposed law leans heavily on counseling for the offender. In some cases, with the consent of the victim and the prosecutor, a judge could place a defendant on probation pending completion of counseling or therapy.

"The primary reason is to save the marriage," said Moss. "That's why this bill is so heavy on therapy and not just jail."

The measure would change current law by allowing the lesser charge of sexual assault against a spouse in situations where the couple is living together and no serious injuries occur during forced sexual intercourse. Existing law does not allow rape or sexual assault charges to be filed if a couple is living together.

In another issue that has been debated intensely for much of this year's session, a proposal to weaken the state's ethics laws for public officials was approved 95 to 5 on the House floor.

The proposed changes would make it tougher to seek prosecution against officials accused of violating the conflict-of-interest law and would eliminate jail terms and reduce fines from $1,000 to $500 for those convicted of breaking some sections of the law.

"I don't think they should have reduced the penalty," said Del. Alan E. Mayer (D-Fairfax), one of the five members who opposed the measure. "The public perception is we're establishing a law that's preferential to ourselves. In terms of the credibility of a public body, public perception is important."

Other delegates opposing the measure were Stephen E. Gordy (R-Fairfax), Frank Medico (R-Fairfax), George F. Allen (R-Charlottesville) and George W. Grayson (D-Williamsburg).

Only minutes before the vote on the conflict bill, Del. Clinton Miller (R-Shenandoah), who initiated the change in the law that would reduce criminal penalties, abstained from voting on a measure that he had coauthored involving real estate time-sharing ventures.

As an attorney, Miller represents a client with major involvements in the vacation time-sharing business.

"If I do represent him, I don't think I should vote on the bill," Miller said.

Another measure approved by the House would give residents of mobile homes greater protections against arbitrary evictions by operators of mobile home parks.

Also, the House Courts of Justice Committee approved a measure to make it easier to obtain convictions in drunk driving cases. The bill would lower the blood-alcohol level required to presume drunkenness from .15 to .10.