By Narissa Rahaman
This June will mark eight years since the U.S. Supreme Court declared marriage equality to be the law of the land, but Virginia still has a ban on same-sex marriage in its constitution.
In the landmark case Obergefell v. Hodges, the court found that the right to marry must be extended to couples of the same sex, and since then, couples across the country – and indeed, across Virginia – have taken advantage of this long-awaited right. This session, pro-equality legislators in the Virginia Senate introduced and passed a bill with bipartisan support that would strip the ban on marriage equality from the Virginia Constitution, but its forward progress in the House has yet to be seen.
As we look to the end of the legislative session in Richmond and towards statewide elections this fall, it’s important to reflect on Virginia’s reputation as a state with a storied history in supporting love, from Loving v. Virginia to the iconic “Virginia Is for Lovers” slogan, and how we can move equality forward in the commonwealth while correcting the mistakes of our past.
Virginia, like many other states at the time, passed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2006 via ballot initiative. Its passage was part of a concentrated campaign by anti-equality forces to drive voters out to the polls by placing this then-controversial political question on the ballot. And, like in many other states, that constitutional ban remains on the books today, despite the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell. There are multiple reasons this ban should be repealed; namely the pursuit of fairness, to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ people in Virginia and simply because it is the right thing to do.
First, fairness. This ban does not reflect the attitudes and beliefs of Virginians in 2023. A 2021 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 71% of Virginians support the right of same-sex couples to marry. This percentage has only increased since the question began being asked of voters. In 2006, 53% of voters supported the marriage ban. This huge swing shows the massive shift in public opinion on the issue of marriage, and it is clear evidence that the antiquated ban should no longer be a part of Virginia’s constitution. It’s only fair to revisit a political question that has shown such a vast change since it was first broached.
Second, the rights of LGBTQ+ people. As we’ve seen with the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the rights protected by Supreme Court rulings are not set in stone, and they can be threatened and overturned by a simple majority on the court. If a SCOTUS case were to pursue the marriage equality ruling, Virginia’s ban on marriage would become the law of the commonwealth. This is not an alarmist attempt to scare people; this is a chance for Virginians and our leaders to show, clearly, how we support our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors here in the commonwealth. On a personal level, I’m getting married to my partner soon, and it is frightening to think that right could be threatened in the place that we are proud to call home.
Third, it’s the right thing to do. Virginia has a storied history of supporting “love.” It was our state motto for years: Virginia Is for Lovers. It was a nationally recognized brand, and Virginians were proud of this reputation. We still are. The landmark case Loving v. Virginia also originated in our commonwealth, ultimately extending marriage rights to couples of different races, years before the extension of the right to marry to same-sex couples. We have a history of supporting love, and we owe it to our past and future generations to continue this legacy by living up to our values.
We have an opportunity to support fairness, protect LGBTQ+ rights and live up to our values. But the House of Delegates, as it stands, has shown that it has no interest in doing any of these things. For that reason, we have to think about the types of lawmakers we want. At Equality Virginia, we are laser-focused on building pro-equality majorities in the General Assembly, and this fall, we will be focusing on flipping the House of Delegates into the pro-equality column, along with preserving our pro-equality gains in the Senate.
This won’t only help right the wrong of Virginia’s marriage ban; it will also allow us to better protect and advance the rights of LGBTQ+ Virginians, especially trans and nonbinary youth, who were targeted by a harmful athlete ban and forced outing bill this year. Luckily, the Senate has been able to fight against the House’s attempt to pass these bills, but we have to make sure that our lawmakers reflect our values when they reconvene in Richmond next year so that we can push equality forward, not just protect against its backslide.
For years, Virginia has been for lovers. We have to ensure that we really live up to that promise for years to come.
Narissa Rahaman is the executive director of Equality Virginia and EV Advocates (EVA), the two arms of the commonwealth’s leading advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) equality.