Over the past few years more states have embraced marriage equality for consenting adults. Virginians similarly have moved toward supporting the right of individuals, not the state, to decide whether love should lead them to marry.
Now, Virginia’s law defining marriage as between one man and one woman has been struck down as contrary to the U.S. Constitution. Some may say that is enough. I don’t think so. We need to do more to clarify the freedoms of two consenting adults to love each other. That is why I filed a Freedom of Marriage amendment to the Virginia Constitution.
Virginia has a long, sad and complicated history of using marriage as a tool not only to discriminate against same-sex couples, but also against minority groups. The best-known restriction in our history was the 1691 ban on intermarriage between races. The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 was overturned by Loving v. Virginia in 1967 .
Our recent past includes other examples that we now know were wrong. A 1918 law, most of which survived until the 1970s, prohibited a couple from marrying if the woman was younger than 45 and either she or her husband was “a habitual criminal, idiot, imbecile, hereditary epileptic or insane person.”
These restrictions were tools of Virginia’s intertwined eugenics and racial purity movements that led to the forced sterilization of thousands of Virginians in state hospitals. The state reissued marriage and birth certificates for members of Virginia’s Indian tribes and reclassified them as “colored” on the basis of folklore and examinations of facial and other physical features that the state determined appeared more African American than Native American — a history that has greatly complicated federal recognition of Virginia’s tribes.
Until 1786, the marriages of many Virginians were not considered legal because of their faith. The legislature was hostile to non-Anglicans and until 1699 only recognized marriages performed by Anglican priests in Anglican services. From 1699, most other Protestants were allowed to marry in their own tradition, but Virginia refused to recognize persons married in Catholic, Unitarian, Jewish and other faiths.
I don’t know what new methods legislators will come up with to use marriage law to restrict the freedoms of consenting adults, but our unfortunate history tells us that gays and lesbians will not be the last group denied recognition of their families. We also need to be respectful to faiths that want to conduct marriage celebrations according to their beliefs. A Freedom of Marriage amendment to our constitution would give Virginians the freedom to: “choose to marry another person who resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed upon by the Commonwealth, except on the basis of age, kinship, or marital status, as prescribed by law. This Commonwealth shall recognize any marriage between two persons performed in any other state or jurisdiction that would be lawful in this Commonwealth. Any minister or civil celebrant authorized to celebrate the rites of marriage in this Commonwealth does not infringe upon the rights guaranteed by this Constitution if that individual refuses to celebrate the rites of marriage for any persons.”
The amendment clarifies Virginia’s support for marriage equality and will prevent further attempts to use marriage law to deny freedom to our citizens. It gives Virginia a chance to demonstrate its regret and make amends for past restrictions on marriage and to state clearly that Virginia will not use love and marriage to oppress people ever again.
The writer, a Democrat, represents the Alexandria area in the Virginia House of Delegates.