U.S. Supreme Court reignites W.Va. gay marriage debate
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginians can expect the issue of same-sex marriage to resurface in the Legislature and in the crucial 2014 elections after the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the matter.
The push for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman is certain to continue after last week's pair of rulings celebrated by same-sex marriage advocates. A divided Supreme Court struck down a provision of a federal law denying federal benefits to married gay couples, and in a separate decision legalized gay marriage in California on a technicality.
"I do think there's an urgency to it," House Minority Leader Tim Armstead said of a constitutional amendment. "At the very least, it should be taken up during the next session."
While the Kanawha County Republican hopes Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will consider calling a special session on the issue, Delegate Stephen Skinner questions whether the momentum has shifted away from gay marriage foes. A freshman Democrat and the Legislature's first openly gay member, Skinner previously headed Fairness West Virginia, a group that advocates for the state's estimated 57,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents.
"It lets the air out of their tires," Skinner said, referring to the Supreme Court action. "There's really not much reason for a constitutional amendment, except to promote discrimination and promote homophobia."
West Virginia already defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. It also does not recognize same-sex marriages granted elsewhere, under state law provisions enacted in 2000. Advocates of a constitutional amendment argue that the statutes are insufficient and vulnerable to a legal challenge.
"We don't know when someone might file a lawsuit or have some other issue come up where a judge can review that issue," Armstead said. "I believe a majority of West Virginians want it defined as between one man and one woman. I think that means we need to go to the next step."
Armstead and fellow GOP delegates have repeatedly led the charge to put a proposed amendment on the ballot. But the necessary measure routinely idles in committee each session, never advancing. That recurring fate has sometimes prompted Republican-led efforts to force the stalled measure to the House floor. Democrats have blocked each attempt, arguing it violates the committee process. Saying the 2000 law is sufficient, they've also accused the GOP of grandstanding on a divisive social issue for political gain.
The marriage issue has indeed become election ad fodder in recent years, particularly during a failed multimillion-dollar bid by Republicans to capture the House in 2006. It seems certain to play a role in the high-stakes 2014 midterms. After significant gains last year, the GOP holds 46 of 100 House seats and is girding for a takeover. The entire House and half the 34-member Senate is up for election next year. Republicans haven't had a majority in either chamber since the 1930s.
But defining marriage in the West Virginia Constitution isn't solely a Republican goal. Five House Democrats, including House Majority Leader Brent Boggs of Braxton County, helped co-sponsor a bipartisan "Marriage Protection Amendment" proposal during this year's session. Like the GOP-only version, it remained bottled up in committee.
While the marriage amendment proposals have failed, so too have attempts to add sexual orientation to laws barring housing and job discrimination. During this year's legislative session, Skinner successfully had a bill amended in committee to bar such discrimination during jury selection -- only to watch fellow Democrats help strip out that change when the measure reached the House floor.
"We don't need to go down the road of making special laws for anything for unique lifestyles," Delegate David Walker, a Clay County Democrat and a marriage amendment co-sponsor, said during that April debate.
The Supreme Court decisions have interest groups from both sides poised to weigh in both at the Legislature and with voters.
"These historic rulings do not end our work in the Mountain State," said Casey Willits, Fairness West Virginia's executive director.
The Family Policy Council of West Virginia, an evangelical Christian group, is a leading advocate of a marriage amendment. It has enlisted ministers from across the state to lobby their local lawmakers and legislative leaders. The group also took on criticism in 2009 for running an online ad that likened same-sex marriage supporters to snipers targeting families.
"Whatever else it got wrong, the [Supreme Court] was right to allow the debate over this most central institution of marriage to our society to continue," said Jeremiah Dys, the group's president. "We will continue to encourage West Virginia's elected representatives to do all that they can to strengthen and support marriage."