Not gay: Marriage affirmation sparks protests

Q: How does Virginia show it's not Massachusetts or San Francisco?

A: With the Affirmation of Marriage Act, the most controversial of the 1,715 bills the General Assembly passed this year.

After all, what other new law inspired seven protest rallies across Virginia– including one in Charlottesville on June 30, the day before it went into effect?

The bill was sponsored by Delegate Robert Marshall, who seems to want to keep the "virgin" in Virginia and who provoked demonstrations in the past when he tried to prevent state universities from dispensing morning-after contraception.

Local legislators voted along party lines on HB 751, which hammers home the prohibition against same-sex marriages or civil unions, and uses language forbidding "partnership contracts" between persons of the same sex– mothers and daughters?– that will likely end up in court.

"I'm not an attorney, but my attorney friends tell me it leaves room for debate," says Dem Delegate Mitch Van Yahres, who voted against the bill. "The state will have to spend money to defend it. That's indefensible."

And in a jab at Republicans, Van Yahres says, "Here is the party saying, 'government interferes with our lives too much,' interfering with our lives."

Attorney and Senator Creigh Deeds thinks the language is too broad. The Democrat, who does not support same-sex marriage, nonetheless says, "The bill is just mean spirited and unnecessary. Virginia law doesn't allow same-sex marriage and civil unions. This is overkill."

Republican Delegate Rob Bell, another attorney, voted for the Affirmation of Marriage Act. He says it was run by Attorney General Jerry Kilgore's office, and the only contract Virginia will not recognize between same-sex couples is the marriage contract.

"I think the attorney general is trying to describe what he wishes it would do, not what it does," says UVA law professor Dan Ortiz. He cites the General Assembly's recent repeal of the "blue laws" fiasco that panicked employers by giving employees the right to declare Sundays "a day of rest."

"The attorney general is saying you've got to enforce the law as written in that case," says Ortiz. "I do see [the Act] affecting some property rights."

The ACLU is itching for a lawsuit and is looking for a gay or lesbian couple who have a contractual arrangement, such as a living will, that would be threatened by the Affirmation of Marriage Act.

"This is a trap legislators caught themselves in because the language didn't refer to gays or same-sex partners," says the ACLU's Kent Willis. Because it's unconstitutional to explicitly diminish rights, says Willis, "In the process, they created something vaguer that affects people who aren't gay or lesbian."

One thing opponents of the Affirmation find clear: "We know the law was intended to slap gays and lesbians in the face," declares Willis. "It's a symbolic message. That's what this is first and foremost."