RICHMOND — A House of Delegates panel yesterday overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment that would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman and would ban same-sex civil unions.
The proposed amendment is expected to pass the Republican-controlled legislature with significant majorities next week. If approved by voters next year, the amendment would make Virginia the first state in the region to define marriage.
Yesterday, the House Privileges and Elections Committee voted 15-5 for the traditional marriage amendment after hearing emotional testimony from homosexuals.
Amendment supporters said they fear Virginia judges will be as liberal as those in Massachusetts and that homosexuals one day will be allowed to exchange marital vows.
“If you do nothing, the risk is that the law of Virginia is going to be set by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts or the California Legislature,” said Lincoln Oliphant, a professor with the Marriage Law Project at Catholic University. “I’m convinced that the people of Virginia do not want to be governed by either of those two bodies.”
The Massachusetts high court last year struck down bans on homosexual “marriage,” and California lawmakers in 2003 passed legislation giving domestic partners many of the legal privileges enjoyed by married couples.
Meanwhile, a judge in New York yesterday said a law banning same-sex “marriage” violates the state constitution, a ruling that would allow homosexuals to wed there if it is not overturned on appeal.
Opponents of Virginia’s marriage amendment, who were given 15 minutes to testify yesterday, said lawmakers are trying to write discrimination into the state constitution, as when blacks were banned from Virginia public schools.
“The Virginia constitution should never, ever again be amended to single out a group for disparate treatment,” said Dyana Mason, executive director of the homosexual advocacy group Equality Virginia.
“Virginia’s painful history of mandated segregation, disenfranchisement of black voters and prohibitions on interracial marriage have left an indelible stain on the state. We need not add another.”
Testimony was emotionally charged, and at least one exchange between a lawmaker and a homosexual witness was tense.
The witness — Michael Thorne-Begland, who appeared with his partner of 12 years and their 3-month-old twins — challenged lawmakers to “look into the face of my family [before] voting to ensure that my family will never have the rights you take for granted.”
Delegate Richard H. Black, who has proposed a law that would make homosexual behavior a factor considered in the adoption process, took note of Mr. Thorne-Begland’s children in a stroller at the back of the committee room.
“How did you come by the two children that you have?” the Loudoun County Republican asked.
“I’d rather not talk about that,” Mr. Thorne-Begland said.