When the four Republicans running for U.S. Senate in Virginia gather for their third and final debate Friday, they’ll have before them a brand-new issue: gay judges.

GOP Senate candidate and Del. Robert G. Marshall, second from right, talks during the first of three debates. Other Republicans in the debate were, from left, former Virginia senator George Allen, Chesapeake minister E.W. Jackson, and tea party leader Jamie Radtke. The winner of the primary will face former Gov. Tim Kaine in November. (Stephanie Klein-Davis/Associated Press)

Marshall led the successful fight in the General Assembly last week to block a gay judicial nominee’s appointment to the bench in Richmond. Jackson has essentially aligned himself with Marshall on that issue, albeit with a twist of racial politics.

Marshall said he did not oppose gay judges per se. But he contended that veteran Richmond prosecutor Tracy Thorne-Begland, who came out as gay as a naval officer 20 years ago on “Nightline,” was unfit for the bench because he had challenged the military’s ban on gays openly serving in the military, advocated for gay marriage and lives with a partner with whom he is raising twins.

Marshall said that biography amounted to military insubordination and a challenge to the state constitution, which bans gay marriage and civil unions. Thorne-Begland’s life, Marshall said, “is a contradiction to the requirement of submission to the constitution”

Jackson agreed with all that in a statement issued last week, while adding that his African-American heritage and sensitivity to civil rights have made him especially opposed to Thorne-Begland’s appointment.

“Homosexuals have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as do all Americans,” Jackson said in a news release. “Nevertheless, sexual orientation is not a protected class under the Virginia Constitution or our laws, nor should it be. Equating rights over ‘sexual orientation’ to black civil rights is not only specious logic but an insult to black Americans and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. It is not unlawful discrimination to block this appointment.”

While Jackson said Americans should not “persecute or punish” fellow citizens for their private sexual behavior, he said that Thorne-Begland could not be trusted to uphold state or federal law because he had challenged “don’t ask, don’t tell” and advocated for gay marriage.

“Private sexual behavior, unless it is against the law, should remain private,” Jackson said. “Mr. Begland has chosen to make his private sexual behavior a cause celebre. ... [T]he moment that behavior becomes a political agenda which activists would use to supersede the Constitution or state law, its proponents must be disqualified from the exercise of judicial power.”

Former governor George Allen, the front-runner, struck a somewhat different tone in a statement released last week. He sought to align himself with Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who objected to anti-gay discrimination in principle but refused to take a position on whether it had played a role in Thorne-Begland’s rejection.

“I agree with Gov. McDonnell that judicial qualifications, not sexual orientation, should be the criteria for judicial selection,” Allen’s statement said. “Decisions on judges should be merit-based selections based on a person's skill, ability, fairness, judicial temperament, and fidelity to the Constitution and laws — judges should apply the law, not invent it or impose their own political views.”

We’ve not yet heard the views of the other Republican in the race, tea party activist Jamie Radtke. Her campaign did not immediately return a call for comment.We’ll update this post when and if we hear back.

We expect all four will get the chance hold forth on the topic Friday, when they meet in Falls Church.

A spokesman for Timothy M. Kaine, the Democrat in the Senate race, has equated Thorne-Begland’s rejection to discrimination.

“Gov. Kaine believes that the only standard for selecting judges should be their qualifications,” Brandi Hoffine, communications director for the former governor, said in an e-mail. “. . . This type of discrimination has no place in government, and serves to pit Virginians against one another at a time when we all need to be coming together.”