RICHMOND — With the legalization of same-sex marriage in Virginia, Democrats and some Republicans have unleashed a torrent of proposals intended to reflect the new reality in time for the start of the legislative session on Wednesday.
Liberal lawmakers have jumped at the chance to remove language banning gay marriage from the state’s constitution and statutes — a move that could energize their most ardent supporters in a year when all 140 General Assembly seats will be up for grabs.
The proposals also could force skittish Republicans to take a stand on gay rights, possibly pushing them into an awkward balancing act between fears about primary challenges from the right and the potential for alienating moderate general-election voters.
On Monday, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said scrubbing the state code of references to “husband and wife” in exchange for the gender-neutral term “spouse” will help attract businesses to the state — the centerpiece goal of his governorship.
“While this change may seem small, it does send a message to the entire commonwealth, to the nation and to the globe that Virginia is welcome to members of the LGBT community,” he said.
The effort is just one of several liberal causes McAuliffe will push this session over the strenuous objections of the Republican-controlled legislature. He also wants to repeal a law requiring women to obtain an ultrasound before an abortion and revive the state’s one-a-month limit on handgun purchases.
The drama will play out amid a changing political landscape across Virginia, where Democrats have won the majority of statewide elections over the past decade — and where they currently hold all five statewide offices.
“The lack of a clear and definitive answer from the Supreme Court and pending cases in other parts of the country creates legal uncertainty for the commonwealth. It is unlikely that the House would make significant changes to the law while this uncertainty remains,” said Matt Moran, a spokesman for Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who himself faces a challenge from the right in an evenly split district.
Currently, 36 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage. Virginia officially joined that group in October when the Supreme Court declined to take up a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit that declared the commonwealth’s ban unconstitutional.
At the time, McAuliffe ordered state agencies to amend their policies for married same-sex couples, allowing them to adopt children — despite some significant caveats — and enjoy the benefits of being married for tax purposes. However, only the General Assembly — and voters — can remove language banning gay marriage from the books.
Four Democrats — Sen. Adam P. Ebbin and Del. K. Robert Krupicka Jr. of Alexandria and Sen. Janet D. Howell and Del. Scott A. Surovell of Fairfax — filed resolutions seeking to remove the ban from the state constitution. Amending the constitution requires passage in two legislative sessions with an election in between as well as voter approval. Three Democrats — Howell, Surovell and Del. Marcus B. Simon (Fairfax) — filed bills that would make the same change to state codes. Simon is also carrying the governor’s proposal to update the code with “spouse.”
Ebbin, the first openly gay member of the General Assembly, said he knows the measures will face steep opposition in the Republican-dominated House of Delegates.
“I just think it’s important that my colleagues know that I’m trying to bring the code up to accuracy. The marriage issue is settled, and now it’s time to fix the code, and I’m hoping to convince them of that,” he said.
Conservative activists say the proposals are nothing but red meat for the Democratic base, not unlike other parts of McAuliffe’s legislative agenda.
“Democrats put these bills in year after year, and year after year they die with little public attention,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia. “I don’t see anything different happening this year.”
It’s no coincidence that many backers of equality bills are from the state’s liberal center in Northern Virginia, where supporting gay rights is generally seen as a benefit to lawmakers as opposed to a hindrance.
Susan Swecker, a longtime Democratic activist and national committeewoman, said Democrats’ bills show the party is “marching in lock step” with voters, who have rewarded Democrats with all five statewide offices.
“There’s been a sea change,” she said. “In the last 10, certainly 20 years, a change in how people feel about this issue. A younger upcoming generation, a movement, a feeling on this issue, and it’s showing at the polls in statewide elections.”
Public opinion is split in Virginia, where a slim majority of registered voters support legalizing gay marriage, 50 percent to 42 percent, a March 2014 Quinnipiac poll found.
Nationally, proposals banning LGBT discrimination are more popular than legalizing gay marriage. A 2013 Public Religion Research Institute survey found that 72 percent favored laws “that would protect gay and lesbian people against job discrimination.”
As is his practice, Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) filed a bill that would make it illegal to discriminate against public employees in the workplace based on sexual identity. McEachin expressed weary optimism for the measure, which has passed the Senate, but failed to get traction in the House in the past.
“Every legislator has the right to be wiser today than they were yesterday,” he said.
Del. Ronald A. Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach), a Filipino American who said he can identify with discrimination, filed a similar bill and said he plans to file a separate measure that would study housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. As a Republican delegate, his support for the issue puts him in the minority.
“I’m not saying it’s going to happen overnight, but I see some changing attitudes. It’s our job as elected officials to help advance the ball and get the discussion going,” he said.
A bill filed by Simon would outright ban LGBT discrimination in housing. Similarly, Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan (D-McLean) is seeking to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the state’s hate-crimes law.
Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington) filed a bill that would prohibit health-care providers from trying to change the sexual orientation of a minor from gay to straight. D.C. recently joined California and New Jersey in banning the controversial practice of gay conversion therapy.
James Parrish, executive director of the LGBT rights group Equality Virginia, said he’s hopeful but realistic.
“There’s definitely broader support for these bills. Equality Virginia and the LGBT community in Virginia’s biggest obstacle to equality in this state is not the general population, it’s a conservative bloc in the House of Delegates.”
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) said such bills will have little chance until federal law includes the LGBT community as a protected class. Nevertheless, he said he has voted for nondiscrimination bills and would again.
On the flip side, Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) filed two “conscience clause” bills: One would block McAuliffe from making nondiscrimination against people because of their sexual orientation a condition of entering into a government contract. The other says anyone who gets a license or authority from the state would not have to serve or counsel same-sex couples if he or she has moral or religious objections.
The efforts are similar to a 2012 law that says private adoption agencies can turn away parents based on sexual orientation or religious and moral beliefs — which gay rights advocates call a major hole in McAuliffe’s blanket order proclaiming adoption open to all.
“I see where it’s going,” Marshall said. “First homosexual advocates talked about tolerance. Then they sought special privileges. Now they’re into conformity, they’re saying you must affirmatively embrace this as who you are. Advocates want to claim they’re no different than anyone else.”
Parrish of Equality Virginia called the licensure bill “extremist, hateful, and discriminatory.” He said: “Discrimination under the guise of religious freedom is still discrimination, and Virginia is better than that.”
Should the bill make it to McAuliffe’s desk, he would veto it in “a nanosecond,” he said.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.