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Sunday, June 20, 2004

Law - Major Reversal in Gay Rights Looms in Virginia

"Major Reversal in Gay Rights Looms in Virginia: A bill that becomes law in July could dissolve contracts, such as wills, leases and child-custody arrangements, between same-sex couples." That is the headline to this story today in the Sunday LA Times. The report begins:

RICHMOND, Va. When it comes to adapting state laws to reflect social change such as women's suffrage, school desegregation and gay rights Virginia has always been a laggard.

Still, many here were stunned by the recent passage of a bill that would end all contractual rights between same-sex partners.

Critics say the law which takes effect July 1 and reaffirms the state's ban on gay and lesbian marriage could negate powers of attorney, wills, leases, child-custody arrangements, joint bank accounts and health insurance granted by companies that recognize domestic partnerships.

Henry F. Fradella, a law professor at the College of New Jersey who tracks gay-rights issues, said: "Nothing so homophobic has ever been enacted into law in this nation's history." The Washington Post called the bill "jaw-dropping," saying it violated "norms of basic fairness and decency." Gay rights groups termed it discriminatory.

According to this June 13th column in the Washington Post:
The act -- really an amendment to an earlier law -- was passed in April, over Gov. Mark R. Warner's objections, and it takes effect July 1. It says, "A civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges and obligations of marriage is prohibited." It goes on to add that any such union, contract or arrangement entered into in any other state, "and any contractual rights created thereby," are "void and unenforceable in Virginia."

When gay marriage came up, Virginia was among the first states to preemptively ban it, in 1997. Moreover, Virginia is the only state to forbid even private companies, unless self-insured, from extending health insurance benefits to unmarried couples. That provision affects cohabiting straights but works a far greater hardship on gay couples, who cannot marry.

Those steps, however, impinge on the power of third parties (corporations and the government) to recognize gay couples. In the Marriage Affirmation Act, Virginia appears to abridge gay individuals' right to enter into private contracts with each other. On its face, the law could interfere with wills, medical directives, powers of attorney, child custody and property arrangements, even perhaps joint bank accounts. If a gay Californian was hit by a bus in Arlington, her medical power of attorney might be worthless there. "Sorry," the hospital might have to say to her frantic partner, "your contract means nothing here. Now leave before we call security."

Some of the law's sponsors have denied intending such a draconian result, and courts may interpret the text's vague and peculiar language more narrowly. Nonetheless, the law as written is a threat to all Virginians and indeed to all Americans, gay and straight alike.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on June 20, 2004 10:44 AM
Posted to General Law Related