HB 751 and the "Marriage Amendment"
In 2004 and 2006, the legislature and then the citizens of Virginia, passed the Affirmation of Marriage Act (HB 751) and then an amendment to the Bill of Rights to the Virginia Constitution, prohibiting recognition of same-sex realtionships. Virginia's LGBTQ community fought these efforts strongly, but ultimately were overpowered by opponents' resources and the entrenched homophobia in the Virginia General Assembly.
During this time, activist organizations like Equality Virginia came into their own, and built skills that today make political progress possible, if still challenging.
2004 witnessed a trial run for the constitutional amendment that would follow in two years. HB 751 was legislation denying legal recognition to civil unions or other arrangements designed to establish relationship rights for same-sex couples It was sponsored by Prince William County Republican Delegate Bob Marshall, who made his career opposing any extension of rights or benefits to LGBTQ people.
The law, named the Affirmation of Marriage Act, reads:
HOUSE BILL NO. 751
1. § 20-45.3. Civil unions between persons of same sex.
A civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage is prohibited. Any such civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement entered into by persons of the same sex in another state or jurisdiction shall be void in all respects in Virginia and any contractual rights created thereby shall be void and unenforceable.
The passage of HB 751 sparked a furor in Virginia. LGBTQ people were outraged, and our community was joined in its outrage by thousands of advocates and supporters, including Governor Mark Warner. In July, our community and our allies gathered at rallies across Virginia to protest the law's effective date.
The Marshall-Newman Amendment
Not satisfied with the Affirmation of Marriage Act, Delegate Marshall and Senator Steve Newman drafted an amendment to the Virginia Bill of Rights defining marriage as an opposite-sex union and prohibiting recognition of legally-established relationships. The amendment was named after them.
Equality Virginia and a coalition of dozens of statewide groups began an unprecedented effort to defeat the amendment. The Commonwealth Coalition was formed, and Virginia's LGBTQ people and their allies stepped into the complicated and challenging arena of state-wide electoral politics. Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, a former Virginia Deputy Attorney General, was campaign manager. Dyana Mason, the Executive Director of Equality Virginia was field director.
The campign raised $1 million for its efforts and met its goal of 1 million votes. However, turnout was unexpectly high in the election, which also featured a high-profile US Senate race. The amendment passed with 57% of the vote - a margin much smaller than in most other states where such an amendment was proposed.
Virginia's constitutional amendment is one of the most restrictive in the United States, denying the creation or recognition of a legal status that "intends to approximate marriage..." and denies recognition of "another union, partnership or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities or effects of marriage."
There has been much debate about how far this can be taken legally. Are contracts legal between people that set up custody/guardianship agreements? How about property agreements? Wills? There has been no challenge to the amendment in court yet, no test case, but all it might take is one judge who believes that being gay is wrong, illegal, or immoral to destroy all the provisions that a couple has made.
The text of the amendment states:
Only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this Commonwealth and its political subdivisions. This Commonwealth and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage. Nor shall this Commonwealth or its political subdivisions create or recognize another union, partnership, or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage.
Read more about the arguments against the Marshall-Newman Amendment at Blogging the Amendment, the official blog of the Commonwealth Coalition.
- Virginia State Board of Elections, http://www.sbe.virginia.gov/ElectionResults/2006/Nov/htm/index.htm, accessed April 29, 2010.