Tuesday, June 29, 2004

A ban on civil unions will become law in Virginia tomorrow, and homosexual- rights activists are planning statewide protests as well as a legal challenge.

The law, passed by an overwhelming majority, amends the state’s Affirmation of Marriage Act to prohibit recognition of same-sex unions performed in other states. It bans civil unions, “partnership contracts” or other arrangements between homosexuals.

Homosexual-rights activists have planned seven coordinated protests statewide today at state government centers and at the state Capitol in Richmond.

Dyana Mason, executive director of homosexual-rights advocacy group Equality Virginia, said a legal challenge is in the works. She said the group has help from Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“It could cast doubt on a contract between two friends or business partners,” she said. “They would have to prove somehow that their relationship is not intimate, and that’s not something you would want to drag through court.”

The law doesn’t change much in Virginia, which has never recognized civil unions or same-sex “marriage.” Its supporters say it is necessary because of actions in Massachusetts and San Francisco, where same-sex couples from other states have been allowed to “marry.”

Opponents say the law is overly broad and could prevent same-sex relatives or business partners from entering into contracts, such as those required for buying property, and that wills between same-sex partners could be challenged.

Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore said the law is not intended to prohibit business partnerships, medical directives, joint bank accounts or any other rights or privileges not exclusive to marriage, adding that he will defend it against a court challenge.

Mr. Kilgore, a Republican, wrote a letter in April stating the bill “provides a needed safeguard for the institution of marriage while not depriving any individual rights currently available to all citizens.”

But Dan Ortiz, a law professor at the University of Virginia, said the law’s “broad” language goes further than its intent.

Under Mr. Ortiz’s interpretation, an elderly woman who wants her granddaughter to make medical decisions for her would be breaking the law because both parties in the contract are female. “It goes far beyond civil unions and addresses regular contracts and property arrangements,” he said.

Delegate Robert G. Marshall, who wrote the law, said it clearly targets homosexuals and protects the sanctity of marriage.

“It says we are not accepting counterfeits for marriage,” the Prince William County Republican said. “A homosexual couple from Virginia who gets married in another state … could not claim that they deserved to be treated as if they were married.”

Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, tried to amend the original bill by deleting the phrase “partnership contract or other arrangement,” and a clause nullifying contractual rights associated with them.

In April, the legislature rejected his amendments and enacted the law without his signature. It passed by a 69-30 vote in the House and a 27-12 vote in the Senate.

The new law has prompted homosexual-rights advocates to boycott Virginia.

Activists in Seattle started the Web site www.VirginiaIsForHaters.org, which urges tourists to boycott Virginia companies and their products. The site’s name satirizes the state’s tourism slogan, Virginia Is for Lovers.

Site founder Jay G. Porter said he has no data on how tourism has been affected but receives mail from people who say “they will never step foot in Virginia again.”

Alisa L. Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the state’s tourism corporation, said last week that numbers for the summer are “very encouraging.”

“It looks like we’re going to have a robust tourism year,” she said. She said it is difficult to track if the boycott is having an effect, and that her organization has received about 80 e-mails from boycotters.

Warner spokeswoman Ellen Qualls said the governor’s office has received several letters supporting the boycott but added that it’s difficult to measure the financial impact a boycott might have.

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