April 15, 2006
By Tully Satre, Culpeper
The 2006 General Assembly session sent a message to Virginia that the majority in our legislature want to step back in time. Issues of basic civil liberties joined transportation at the top of the list of discussions and debates for the General Assembly.
One of the most controversial efforts this year seeks to write discrimination into Virginia’s Constitution and restrict private contractual rights. The Marshall/Newman amendment (the so-called Virginia “Marriage Amendment”) was brought up in House committee the very first day the General Assembly came into session in January. The bill quickly sailed through the legislature and onto the November ballot.
Gov. Kaine took the amendment into careful consideration and, after thoroughly reviewing the language, realized that the Marhsall/Newman amendment goes too far. A recent Washington Post article quoted Kaine as saying he was concerned “about the broad wording of the proposed constitutional amendment … it [threatens] the constitutional rights of individuals to enter into private contracts, and the discretion of employers to extend certain benefits, such as health care coverage, to unmarried couples.”
Our governor added, “For those reasons, I will vote against the marriage amendment in November, and I urge other Virginians to vote against it as well.”
Virginia law has already prohibited same-sex marriage for over 30 years, and has banned civil unions and domestic partnerships between people of the same sex for the past three years without litigation. Whether one supports full marriage equality or not, this is about more than just marriage; it is about basic civil liberties that our country originally sought to bestow.
The full language not only defines marriage as between only a man and a woman, but also bans any future recognition of civil unions, domestic partnerships and “other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage.” This could force courts to block enforcement of domestic violence laws against unmarried partners, straight or gay.
Additionally, the broad language of the amendment could mean that loved ones of unmarried partners could be denied hospital visitation rights, decisions of organ donation, burial, property rights or even the caretaking of children. Even local business owners could be sued over granting health insurance and domestic partnership rights to people other than immediate family members.
While there is no knowing whether the amendment would do these things, the ambiguous language makes it an awfully big risk.
We, as a commonwealth promising freedom and equality to all citizens, have an obligation to discourage discrimination. We must ensure that Virginia’s Constitution is a document that protects all of Virginia’s citizens and their civil rights.
Tully Satre, a high school student, is executive director of Equality Fauquier/Culpeper.