RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Lawmakers in Virginia are putting the finishing touches on a bill that would ban same-sex marriage. The bill would clear the way for a ballot proposal in November to change the state's constitution.
Virginia is one of ten states considering bans on gay marriage this year, setting the stage for a rematch of the 2004 elections. Two years ago, battles over gay marriages spilled over into national politics.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:
You can see why Victoria Cobb became executive director of the Family Foundation of Virginia at age 26. When the Virginia legislature is in, she's in her office in Richmond by 7:00, and often stays till 9:00 at night. Her mission: to defend family values. And right now, that means banning gay marriage.
Ms. VICTORIA COBB (Executive Director, Family Foundation of Virginia): This is about so much more than maybe two individuals who might love each other, but don't happen to be a man and a woman. This is about redefining an institution that's been the bedrock of nearly every society for all of history.
HAGERTY: For Cobb, who's expecting her first child in July, protecting traditional marriage has gained some urgency. It is, she says, about protecting children.
On this sparkling February day, Cobb trods the familiar path from her office to the State House, a couple of blocks away. Inside the State House, Cobb heads for Steve Newman's office. He's the Republican state senator who guided the Marriage Amendment through the Senate.
State Senator STEPHEN NEWMAN (Republican, Virginia): Come in. Hello. Hi, how are you all today?
Ms. COBB: Hi, how are you?
State Senator NEWMAN: Hi, Victoria.
Ms. COBB: Nice to see you.
State Senator NEWMAN: See you, hi.
Ms. COBB: Well, I guess I just wanted to kind of update you on just what we've been doing, so let's...
HAGERTY: Now that the legislature has passed the amendment, Cobb says she's launching phase two: getting the voters to approve it in November. Cobb tells Newman she's brought on someone to work exclusively on the issue to meet with churches and civic groups. Radio and television ads will come later.
Ms. COBB: ...senators. We've been running these petitions in civic groups, churches, all over the state, and they've been coming in in droves, just every day...
HAGERTY: Changing the constitution may seem like overkill. Virginia already has a law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. But State Senator NEWMAN says it's only a matter of time before a couple moves from Massachusetts or Vermont, where same-sex unions are legal, and demands that their union be recognized in Virginia.
State Senator NEWMAN: States have a state right to define what marriage is for each individual state. And so, when someone comes to Virginia with that marriage license from another state, it is important that Virginia act and put this within their constitution, where it can be of most protection.
HAGERTY: Indeed, 19 other states have done the same calculus and amended their constitutions. Aside from Virginia, nine others could do the same this year; South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Alabama, Wisconsin, Arizona, Illinois, Idaho, and Colorado. This delights Republicans, who have only to look back to the 2004 election, when marriage amendments swept across a country from Oregon to Kentucky.
Back then, says Kareem Crayton, who teaches law and political science at the University of Southern California, the amendments stoked up the culture wars, impassioned the Christian conservative base, and may have played a major role in re-electing President Bush, especially in battleground states.
Professor KAREEM CRAYTON (Law/Political Science, University of Southern California): I think that it had an effect on the intensity that voters had for showing up. So, going back to Ohio and places where polling lines were extremely long, you were more likely to stay out in the rain and wait for your time to vote if you thought this was a major issue, you couldn't just let it pass.
HAGERTY: This could be critical in states where there will be contested national races for governor or senator, such as Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Illinois. But this fall will not be a straight rematch.
Dr. JOHN GREEN (Senior Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life): A lot has changed between 2004 and 2006.
HAGERTY: John Green is a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Dr. GREEN: President Bush is not nearly as popular, and there are scandals in Washington, the war in Iraq is lingering on, and there are other policy problems.
So, it may very well be that Republicans will look to social issues, and phenomenon such as the marriage amendments as being especially important in an environment where they don't have as many things going for them.
HAGERTY: At the same time, Green says, Democrats, and especially gay rights activists, have had two years to think about what happened in 2004.
Mr. SETH KILBORNE (Human Rights Campaign): I think we are doing things differently.
HAGERTY: That's Seth Kilborne, who heads The Marriage Project for the Human Rights Campaign. Lesson one, he says, start earlier. In Wisconsin, for example, gay rights activist have set up a speaker's bureau that's identified hundreds of people who will talk to their communities and civic clubs about why marriage should be available to same-sex couples. Lesson two, Kilborne says, simplify the message.
Mr. KILBORNE: In 2004, we made the campaigns a lot about these amendments go too far, and, you know, the effects are unknown, and, you know, be careful about what you put into the Constitution. But I think this time around, we're going to be much more direct about the underlying issue, which is marriage for same-sex couples.
HAGERTY: The message, he says, is equality. The medium is personal stories.
Mr. KILBORNE: I think that the more gay and lesbian people themselves talk about the realities of their lives, talk about the kind of discrimination that they face, talk about the loves and the happiness in their life as well, I think the faster progress occurs.
Mr. ANTHONY DURANZO(ph): I'm Anthony Duranzo. I'm a freshman at Mary Washington...
HAGERTY: On a recent Saturday afternoon in Fredericksburg, Virginia, about 30 people are gathering to tell their stories. They wedge themselves into a small room in the local Unitarian Universalist Church.
Reverend STEPHANIE BURNS (Pastor, Metropolitan Community Church of Fredericksburg): I'm Reverend Stephanie Burns. I'm a pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Fredericksburg. I'm really appalled at how the legislators are using their personal religious beliefs, and trying to put it into...
Ms. HETTA BUCHANON(ph): My name's Hetta Buchanon. This is my first meeting here. I've been Lee's partner for seven years, and, you know, as I'm getting a little older, and maybe thinking about starting a family, now we're having to think about, we're going to have to move. We can't do that here.
Ms. SUSAN STANSKIS(ph): My name's Susan Stanskis, and I'm the mother of a gay son. And this affronts me most personally, because it affects whether or not my children are safe to live in this common law.
HAGERTY: For an hour, Dyana Mason, who heads the gay rights group Equality Virginia, brainstorms about how to defeat the amendment in November through writing letters, making phone calls, going door to door. After the meeting, the group leaves energized, but Mason admits, they have a steep climb ahead of them.
Ms. DYANA MASON (Equality Virginia): We know that we would need probably close to a million votes in order to defeat this measure at the ballot box. We're going to do everything we can over the next ten months, eleven months, to talk to as many of those people as we can. And that's a huge challenge for us.
HAGERTY: But Mason is taking the long view. Confident that in a generation, marriage for same-sex couples will be the law of the land.
Of course, conservatives are looking ahead as well, and pulling out all the stops to get gay marriage banned, state by state.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you can explore where all 50 states stand on the gay marriage issues with an interactive map at our website, npr.org.