Virginia Keeps Fire on Gay Marriage

Virginia Keeps Fire on Gay Marriage

Constitutional amendment, “Traditional Marriage” license plates on the legislative agenda

The upcoming legislative session of the Virginia General Assembly will consider an amendment to the state’s constitution banning same-sex marriage.

To be enacted the amendment would have to pass two successive sessions of the Legislature, made up of the Senate and the House of Delegates, and then be approved by a majority of Virginia voters.

In 1997, Virginia passed the Affirmation of Marriage Act that already prohibits gays from marrying.

Also this session, the Legislature will consider HB 1660, allowing state residents to post on their cars a special license plate with the words “Traditional Marriage” underneath a background of two interlocked wedding rings over a red heart.

According to Pam Goheen of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), any group or organization can ask a state delegate to sponsor a plate design. Once the design is enacted through law, there must be at least 350 pre-paid applications for the new plate, which costs anywhere from $10 to $25, not including an annual renewal fee, for the DMV to start its process of producing and registering the plates. Goheen said it usually takes about two years from authorization for a new design to appear on vehicles.

Currently, Virginia offers 180 license plate designs so drivers can declare to other motorists, among other things, their membership in the National Rifle Association, that they are a former prisoner of war or their interest in amateur radio.

The bill’s main sponsor, Republican Delegate Scott Lingamfelter, could not be reached for comment by press time.

Both the amendment and the license plate design are the latest attempts by Virginia to attack same-sex marriage, and some say, deny gay Virginians equal rights. Last year Virginia state lawmakers passed HB 751. That bill prevents the recognition of civil unions, gay marriages performed in other states and any “partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex.”

At the time, many observers, including Virginia’s governor, Democrat Mark Warner, who threatened to veto the bill, warned that the bill’s language was too vague, and could infringe on the rights of any two same-sex people such as business partners or relatives to make contracts with each other. Enough votes were cast to over ride the governor’s veto. Warner condemned the bill and refused to sign it.

Supporters of HB 751 said it was needed because the earlier Affirmation of Marriage Act did not go far enough in preventing same-sex couples from gaining rights commonly afforded only to married people.

One of those supporters, Republican Delegate William Janis, as well as a co-patron of HB 1660, disagrees that HB 751 prevents anyone from engaging in contractual relationships.

“Nothing in the law bans that,” he said. “It was simply an affirmation of previous Virginia law that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.”

Janis argued that the measure is simply an attempt to prevent out-of-state civil unions and same-sex marriages from being recognized.

Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia, the state’ lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group, calls both of the newly proposed laws blatantly unconstitutional.

“The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals here in Richmond recently ruled that political speech in public forums like license plates is prohibited,” she said. “That was the case when Virginia authorized the words ‘Choose Life’ to appear on license plates. The conservative Fourth Circuit said it wasn’t allowable.”

If HB 1660 is passed, Equality Virginia plans to contest it with help from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Let’s just hope,” she said.

Regarding HB 751, Mason said it is very dangerous because it allows third parties to contest legal agreements like medical decisions, estate planning and child custody contracts made between same-sex couples.

“The language in 751 could mean anything a judge thinks it means because it is so broadly worded, and makes our relationships much more vulnerable to challenge,” Mason said.

Democratic Delegate Mitchell Van Yahres has introduced a bill that would repeal HB 751, but he said, “It will probably just be passed over in committee and never make it to a full vote.”

Van Yahres said he also opposes the bill that would allow people to display “Traditional Marriage” on their car license plates.

“It’s moving religion into government, the same way 751 is, the same way the marriage amendment is,” he said.

Regarding the amendment to Virginia’s constitution, Van Yahres said he expects it to pass.

“We have a very conservative legislative body,” he said. “Whether the governor signs it remains to be seen.”