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Virginia Democrat Aims to Undo ‘Stain’ of Same-Sex Marriage Ban

Two women kiss surrounded by press photographers
Nicole Pries, left, and Lindsey Oliver share a kiss as they celebrate being one of the first same-sex couples in Virginia to be married on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014, outside John Marshall Courthouse in Richmond. The couple were the first in the Richmond are to be married after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn same sex-marriage prohibitions. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

It’s been fourteen years since Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and six since a U.S. district court judge rendered it toothless.

Now advocates are pressing for a new constitutional amendment in Virginia that would replace the current language with an affirmation of the rights for adults to marry, regardless of their gender identity. Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who is sponsoring the change, calls the existing wording “a stain on our Constitution.”

“I don't want to have any possibility of denying people the right that others have already enjoyed,” Ebbin said.

Last month, two of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most conservative justices advocated overturning Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case that declared same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. Ebbin’s proposed amendment would help alleviate concerns among LGBTQ Virginians that their right to marry would be protected against the backdrop of a more conservative court, according to Vee Lamneck, director of the advocacy group Equality Virginia.

“We want all LGTBQ families to feel safe in the state they call home,” Lamneck said. 

The amendment, which is still being finalized, needs approval from the General Assembly next year and again in 2022 before voters would see it on their ballot that November. 

Ebbin is the first openly gay member of Virginia’s Senate. He tried to repeal the amendment in 2016, but his resolution failed to make it out of committee in a Republican-majority legislature. After Democrats won control of the General Assembly in the 2019 elections, Ebbin and Del. Nancy Guy (D-Virginia Beach) led a successful push to remove bans on same-sex marriages and civil unions from Virginia’s legal code that predated the amendment. A handful of Republicans in both chambers voted alongside Democrats for the change.

That would have been unthinkable in 2005 and 2006, when some Democratic lawmakers joined Republicans to vote for the amendment by large margins in the General Assembly. About 57% of Virginia voters approved the measure at the time.

In 2014, a federal appeals court cleared the way for same-sex marriage in Virginia when it upheld a lower court’s verdict that the commonwealth’s bans of the practice violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

Democrats used their newfound power in the legislature earlier this year to pass sweeping protections for the LGBTQ community in housing, employment, public spaces, and credit applications. But Lamneck saw more work ahead in next year’s session, including removing language that criminalizes sexual activities for people living with HIV.

“With the modernization of HIV law, we will hopefully see more people accessing treatment and prevention of the virus,” Lamneck said.