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Youngkin defends portrayal of gay-marriage rights as business ranking slips

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers remarks at a restaurant in Woodbridge, Va., on June 22. (Steve Helber/AP)
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RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin said Wednesday that he was right to tell a national TV audience that Virginia law protects same-sex marriage rights, even though such unions would be banned in the state if the U.S. Supreme Court reverses itself on that issue.

Youngkin, a Republican who has leaned into some culture wars but mostly sidestepped LGBTQ issues, defended his remarks as the state he’s led for six months slipped in an annual best-states-for business ranking — due in part to a lower score for “life, health and inclusion.” The state’s workforce grade also took a hit in the CNBC ranking, which covers a period partly governed by Youngkin’s Democratic predecessor, Ralph Northam.

During an interview Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Youngkin gave the impression that same-sex marriage rights would be secure in Virginia regardless of whether Supreme Court reconsiders and reverses its 2015 decision legalizing such unions nationwide.

The governor’s appearance was part of a recent mainstream-media blitz that Youngkin, a former private equity mogul who poured $20 million of his own money into last year’s campaign, launched last month amid hints he’s considering a 2024 presidential bid.

Youngkin meets with megadonors amid hints he’s mulling White House bid

The political newcomer walked a tightrope to the Executive Mansion, selling himself as a social conservative to the GOP base and as a cheery, common-sense business leader to suburban moderates. His sometimes-artful, sometimes-awkward balancing act — more pronounced than ever amid the 2024 tease — was on display during the Sunday interview as Youngkin responded to questions about abortion and former president Donald Trump as well as same-sex marriage.

In a conference call Wednesday, Democratic legislators called the dip in state’s CNBC ranking proof that Youngkin’s conservative social agenda has made the state less appealing to business. Virginia snagged the top ranking two years in a row under Northam before falling to third place this year, behind North Carolina and Washington state.

“High-tech companies want a welcoming and friendly Virginia,” state Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-Fairfax). “That’s why they left other states. … Governor Youngkin is focusing on socially divisive issues because he thinks it’s going to give him a leg up in a presidential nomination with a bunch of people trying to out-right themselves. And it’s hurting Virginia.”

Youngkin, who ran contending that the state was in an economic “ditch,” has attracted some big-name companies, including Boeing, Raytheon and Lego. Lego, however, expressed some trepidation about the governor’s conservative stances on race and the environment as it announced plans to build a $1 billion factory in Chesterfield County.

Lego prepared for questions on Youngkin and critical race theory in Va.

Youngkin noted that Virginia’s scores improved “materially” in two areas he’s focused on: infrastructure and business friendliness.

“The key here is to get this economy moving and we’ve had to dig out of a hole,” he said.

Youngkin’s comments on same-sex marriage came during an in-studio interview with CBS’s Robert Costa. Noting the Supreme Court’s rightward turn, Costa asked Youngkin if he would move to codify same-sex marriage rights in Virginia if the court ever overturns its 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.

“We actually do protect same-sex marriage in Virginia,” Youngkin responded. “That’s the law in Virginia and, therefore, as governor of Virginia, we protect same-sex marriage.”

But state law does not protect such unions. In fact, the Virginia Constitution bans same-sex marriage under an amendment adopted in 2006 that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. While the ban became defunct after Obergefell, the language remains in the constitution and would become operative again if the Supreme Court were to reverse itself. Republicans in the House of Delegates killed an effort this year to remove that language.

“That amendment makes it clear that no other relationship may, by law, be given the status of a legal marriage,” said A.E. Dick Howard, a University of Virginia law professor who helped write the most recent version of the state constitution. “If Obergefell were to be overturned, then, in Virginia, the marriage amendment would take precedence over any conflicting provision of state law. Same-sex marriages would not be recognized in Virginia.”

Asked on Wednesday at an appearance in Richmond if he had misstated Virginia law to Costa, Youngkin insisted his comments accurately reflect the current state of same-sex rights given the protections granted nationwide under Obergefell.

“I didn’t misspeak with the current law in Virginia,” he said. “Same-sex [marriage] is protected in Virginia and it will continue to be so. And I understand the media loves to live in the world of hypotheticals. … We’ve had a Supreme Court ruling that stands up for gay marriage in Virginia and this is where the law is. … I can’t live in the world of hypotheticals.”

Youngkin gave no indication to Costa that he was refusing to entertain a hypothetical, post-Obergefell United States. His response, therefore, gave the impression that Virginia law would protect same-sex marriage rights if the national protections went away — a possibility that some legal observers think is more likely given the court’s conservative makeup and willingness to overturn far more established precedent in Roe v. Wade, the nearly 50-year-old decision that had established abortion rights nationwide.

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter called the possibility of the Supreme Court’s reconsidering Obergefell an “extreme hypothetical situation.”

In his concurring opinion in the case that overturned Roe, Justice Clarence Thomas said the court should reexamine the constitutional underpinnings of a number of court precedents, including Obergefell. None of the other justices joined his opinion.

Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who was the state’s first openly gay legislator when he took office in 2012, does not see the loss of same-sex marriage rights as an unlikely hypothetical.

“The Virginia Constitution’s anti-marriage equality amendment would serve as a de facto trigger law in the event that the Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality would be up to the states as they recently did with abortion,” he said.

Youngkin has some allies among conservative LGBTQ groups, including Log Cabin Republicans, to whom he made some highly cautious overtures during Pride Month. Some of them share Ebbin’s wariness about losing marriage rights if the state does not amend its constitution.

Gov. Youngkin, who ran on culture wars, takes cautious approach to Pride

“I see the potential for [the Supreme Court] to turn it back to the states for sure in the same way they did for Roe v. Wade,” said Casey Flores, president of Log Cabin Republicans of Richmond and a Youngkin appointee to the state’s LGBTQ Plus Advisory Board.

At a private luncheon with Log Cabin Republicans at the mansion in June, Youngkin made no policy statements or promises but seemed to listen as guests said they would continue to push for the same-sex marriage ban’s repeal, Flores said.

To change the constitution, a resolution would have to pass the General Assembly twice before going to a public vote in a general election. Governors do not have the chance to sign or veto resolutions, but they can play an important role by advocating for or against them.

“I would hope that he would” support the effort, Flores said. “Frankly, I’ve seen him pressed on this [before]. … It doesn’t seem like there’s ever been a solid answer.”

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