Two cases being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this week could change the way America defines marriage and whether same-sex couples will be given the same rights and benefits under federal law that those in traditional marriages enjoy.
Richmond residents Judd Proctor and Brian Burns have waited two decades for what they hope to be a changing tide for marriage equality in Virginia.
After they met at a volleyball game at Byrd Park in the summer of 1993, they began dating. Because same-sex marriage isn’t legal in Virginia, the couple did not marry until 2006, when Massachusetts became one of the first states to allow gay couples to wed.
That year, Virginia voters passed a constitutional amendment underscoring that same-sex marriage is illegal in the commonwealth.
“Our decision to get married that year was sort of like civil disobedience, thumbing our nose at Virginia a little bit,” Burns said. “But we wanted to do it anyway,” he added.
Proctor, 63, and Burns, 53, consider Virginia one of the most hostile states for same-sex couples. The state does not recognize their marriage.
“After awhile, you kind of get numb to the discrimination, even though it really can’t get any worse,” Proctor said.
But as the Supreme Court prepares to take up the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, the two hope times might be changing.
In May, President Barack Obama announced that he believes same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.
In January, he invoked gay rights in his inaugural address, saying: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, recently announced that he had a change of heart after his son told him in 2011 that he is gay.
Positioning herself for a possible 2016 presidential bid, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat, last week also touted her support for same-sex marriage in a video message.
Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, D-Va., said Thursday that he used to oppose same-sex marriage but changed his mind in 2006, when, as governor, he campaigned against the constitutional amendment banning it in Virginia.
“My thinking has evolved on it because of people I know, so many gay and lesbian folks, some in longtime relationships who are great parents,” Kaine said.
But there was something else that had an even bigger impact on his decision, Kaine said.
“As (the ban) was going through the legislature, I became concerned about some of the motivations that were expressed to me. Some folks said to me candidly that this is really about trying to make the state inhospitable to gay people,” he said.
In 2006, state voters approved the amendment with 57 percent supporting a ban and 43 percent opposed.
Virginia law already banned same-sex marriage and civil unions, but supporters argued that the amendment was necessary to prevent so-called activist judges from overturning state statutes. Opponents countered that it would write discrimination into the constitution and create unintended consequences.
In the recently concluded legislative session, Del. Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax, attempted to lift the ban, but his proposal died in a subcommittee.
A Quinnipiac University poll in June indicated that some Virginians had changed their views since 2006, with 49 percent opposing same-sex marriage compared with 42 percent who supported it.
Washington, D.C., and nine states now allow same-sex marriage: Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington. Legislation in Minnesota is pending.
In states where same-sex couples are not allowed to marry, they do not enjoy the same benefits that married heterosexual couples have. For example, they often are disadvantaged when their partner is hospitalized or dies.
A nationwide Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week showed that 58 percent of Americans surveyed believe it should be legal for gay and lesbian couples to get married as opposed to 36 percent who say it should be illegal. That’s a big change from 10 years ago, when 37 percent favored gay nuptials and 55 percent opposed them.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the matter should be decided for all states on the basis of the U.S. Constitution, not with each state making its own laws, the poll found.
“A majority of the country supports same-sex marriage,” said Kevin Clay, spokesman for Equality Virginia. “It’s safe to say that Virginia is in trend with the rest of the country.”
But the polls may not be an accurate reflection of what Americans really believe, said Chris Freund with the Family Foundation of Virginia.
“There is an attempt to convince people that there has been a significant change, but we are not convinced that this is actually taking place,” Freund said, citing a poll released by Reuters this month that found only 41 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage.
“This has been on the ballot in over 30 states, and (the country) continues to be in favor of traditional marriage,” Freund said.
Opponents of same-sex marriage argue that, besides religious concerns, legalization would change the nation’s social fabric.
“Traditional marriage is the natural order of society because man and woman have a special relationship,” said Louisa County native Megan Fabling. “To recognize marriage between gays or lesbians would take away from that.”
Fabling, 20, is a sophomore at Patrick Henry College in Loudoun County, an institution dedicated to Christ and to liberty.
She considers herself living proof that opposition to same-sex marriage isn’t always a generational issue.
“There is a whole movement among people of my generation who don’t approve of homosexuals getting married,” Fabling said.
Freund, of the Family Foundation, said an important role of marriage is to protect children.
“Marriage between man and woman is seen as the fundamental building block of civilization,” he said. “It ensures that our families have children that are taken care of, and science tells us that children do better with both mom and dad.”
But on Thursday, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared its support for same-sex marriage, saying that allowing gay and lesbian parents to marry is in the best interests of their children and that “children growing up in households headed by gay men or lesbians are not disadvantaged in any significant way.”
Sierra and Kathy Magee, a Richmond couple who married in New York last year, say it’s challenging to raise a child in a same-sex relationship in Virginia.
Sierra Magee is expecting a son by a sperm donor; she will deliver the baby in Washington, where Kathy Magee will be listed as a parent on the birth certificate.
“If I had a child here in Virginia, Kathy would have no rights as a parent, even if something happened to me,” Magee said.
Without a Supreme Court ruling that would find the ban of same-sex marriage unconstitutional, gay and lesbian couples have little hope that things in the commonwealth will change in the near future.
A Republican-controlled House of Delegates and evenly-split state Senate are unlikely to overturn Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe favors civil unions, and Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli opposes allowing same-sex couples to marry.
As attorney general, Cuccinelli will be defending the viability of Virginia’s 2006 amendment as the issue is debated before the Supreme Court, said Anna Nix, his spokeswoman.
In the meantime, both sides show little willingness to compromise.
“This is my country and the place where I want to raise my family one day,” said Fabling, the Patrick Henry College student.
“If we legalize same-sex marriage and change our tradition, it changes the tone of our nation. That is not something that I am willing to condone,” she said.
On the other side, state Sen. Adam P. Ebbin, D-Alexandria, the first openly gay member in the Virginia legislature, said it is “immoral and outrageous that the state would make it harder for good parents” to raise their children. “Same-sex couples want the same everyday things that straight people want, like have jobs, have kids and to be contributing members of society,” he said.
“Eventually, it will happen,” Ebbin said. “You can’t stop the progress of the human mind, even in Virginia.”