Virginia House GOP again blocks effort to get rid of same-sex marriage ban

Conservative group floats possibility of SCOTUS reactivating state’s 2006 ban

By: - February 17, 2023 12:44 pm

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A scaled-back proposal to repeal Virginia’s antiquated constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was blocked Friday by the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, despite supporters’ attempts to win bipartisan votes by stripping out any language overtly backing LGBTQ equality.

Same-sex marriage has been recognized in Virginia for years, and the ban voters approved in 2006 doesn’t currently carry any legal weight. But after the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion last year, LGBTQ advocates say the issue of marriage equality looks less settled than it once did.

Just prior to Friday’s vote in a House Rules subcommittee set up to hear proposals for constitutional amendments, a representative of the socially conservative Family Foundation raised the prospect of the Supreme Court overturning the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationally.

“If and when it does, Virginia’s constitution should continue to reflect the truth about marriage,” said Family Foundation lobbyist Todd Gathje.

None of the four Republicans on the subcommittee spoke about the proposal or disagreed with Gathje’s comments before the 4-1 vote to block it.

Because the proposed amendment was being heard in a special Rules subcommittee dominated by members of the chamber’s leadership, the Republicans who opposed the measure were Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, and House Commerce and Energy Chairwoman Kathy Byron, R-Bedford.

The speaker’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The amendment repealing the same-sex marriage ban had passed the Virginia Senate 25-14, with four Republicans joining Democrats in support.

The Senate had passed a similar but more detailed repeal measure last year. That version not only would have repealed the constitutional language limiting marriage to one man and one woman, but would have enshrined marriage as a “fundamental right” and declared government officials must “treat all marriages equally.”

After some Republican legislators warned of unintended consequences of making marriage an affirmative right, repeal proponents filed stripped-down versions that only got rid of the currently unenforceable ban without adding anything new. 

The repeal legislation “provides a fundamental dignity and equality to our families, friends, neighbors and to me,” Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, one of the Virginia General Assembly’s first openly gay members, told the subcommittee.

Del. Tim Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, had filed an amendment similar to Ebbin’s, saying prior to the session that support for same-sex marriage aligned with conservative principles like small government and equal treatment under the law. Six Democrats and one Republican, Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, had co-patroned Anderson’s measure, indicating it would have had a chance of passing if it had cleared the committee process and gotten to a full floor vote. Republicans have a 52-48 majority in the House. But the Republican-backed version never got docketed for a committee hearing.

If it had passed, the amendment would have needed General Assembly approval again next year before going to voters in a 2024 ballot referendum.

After Friday’s vote, Democrats and LGBTQ advocacy groups issued statements accusing Republicans of scuttling a chance to let Virginians weigh in on gay marriage again to rectify the 2006 vote.

Pro-LGBTQ rights group Equality Virginia said the amendment would give same-sex couples in Virginia “peace of mind about the future of their relationships.”

“There has been a common theme from the anti-equality leadership in the House of Delegates this session: pass anti-LGBTQ+ bills, kill any proactive protections for our community and do all of this without consulting LGBTQ+ Virginians or taking us seriously as people and constituents,” said Equality Virginia Executive Director Narissa Rahaman. “Rest assured, Equality Virginia will remember this in the fall when we head to the ballot box.”

In a statement, the Democratic Party of Virginia said the vote indicates House Republicans share the desire for courts to take action in the future to nullify some Virginians’ marriages.

Friday morning’s vote also came up on the House floor later in the day.

“We already know that folks like the Family Foundation and other extreme elements of the party are salivating at the opportunity to start taking these freedoms away,” Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said as he recounted what had happened in the subcommittee.

No Republicans stood to offer a rebuttal.

The only other group to speak against the repeal at Friday’s subcommittee hearing was the Virginia Catholic Conference.

“If you believe, as we do, that marriage is the union of one man and one woman and that we should preserve this original design, please vote to continue reflecting that in our state constitution,” said Catholic Conference Executive Director Jeff Caruso.


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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.