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Marriage Plays Starring Role in Politics… Again

You can see why Victoria Cobb became executive director of the Family Foundation of Virginia at the tender age of 26. She's a woman with a passion: When the Virginia legislature is in, she's in her office in Richmond by 7 a.m., and often stays until nine at night. Her mission: to defend family values. Right now, that means passing an amendment to ban gay marriage.

"This is about so much more than two individuals who might love each other but don't happen to be a man and a woman," she says. "This is about redefining an institution that has been a bedrock of society for all of history."

Cobb says instead of denying same-sex couples rights, this movement has as its goal protecting children. "We know from social research that traditional family structure is the best place that children can possibly be raised," she says. Noting that she is expecting her first child in July, Cobb adds, "So, yeah, I want my child to grow up in a Virginia that continues to put mom and dad as the model and holds them up and says, ultimately, what we want to see happen -- this is what we as a government want to protect and promote."

On a sparkling February day, Cobb and I tread the familiar path from her office to the statehouse a couple of blocks away. She's right at home here, a conservative lobbyist among conservative legislators. Cobb is still basking in a recent victory: Last month, Virginia's legislature passed a bill paving the way for a state constitutional amendment on marriage. The amendment -- if it is approved by Virginians in November -- would define marriage as between one man and one woman, and would deny rights to gay couples who want to marry or form domestic partnerships.

Battling Gay Marriage at the Ballot Box

Changing the constitution may seem like overkill, since Virginia already has a law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. But "it's absolutely necessary," says State Sen. Steve Newman, a Republican. Newman believes that it is only a matter of time before a couple will move from Massachusetts or Vermont, where same-sex unions are legal, and demand that their union be recognized in Virginia. And while a state court might not recognize such a union, a federal court easily could.

"We're speaking directly to the federal courts, and saying, 'States have a right to define what marriage is for each individual state'," he says. "And so when someone comes to Virginia with a marriage license from that state, it is important that Virginia acts and puts this within their constitution, where there is the most protection."

In fact, 19 other states have already done the same political calculus and amended their constitutions. Aside from Virginia, nine others could do the same this year: South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Alabama, Wisconsin, Arizona, Illinois, Idaho and Colorado. This delights Republicans, who have only to look back to the 2004 election, when marriage amendments swept across the country from Oregon to Kentucky.

Kareem Crayton, who teaches law and political science at the University of Southern California, says the marriage amendments stoked up the culture wars, impassioned the Christian conservative base... and may have played a major role in re-electing President Bush, especially in battleground states like Ohio.

"I think it had an effect on the intensity that voters had for showing up," he says. "So in Ohio, for example, where polling lines were extremely long, you were more likely to stay out in the rain and wait for your time to vote, if you thought this was a major issue and you couldn't just let it pass."

Issue May Draw GOP Voters to Polls

This could be critical in states where there will be contested national races for governor or the U.S. Senate -- such as Tennessee, Wisconsin and Illinois. But this fall will not be a straight rematch.

"A lot has changed between 2004 and 2006," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "President Bush is not nearly as popular. There are scandals in Washington. The war in Iraq is lingering on. And there are other policy problems. So it may very well be that Republicans will look to social issues, and phenomena like the marriage amendments, as being especially important in an environment where they don't have as many things going for them."

At the same time, Green says, Democrats -- and especially gay rights activists -- have had two years to think about what happened in 2004.

"One of the rules of politics is that mobilization often creates countermobilization," he says. "And in 2004, with regard to the marriage amendments, most of the action was on the right; there wasn't as much opposition on the left. And it may very well be that individuals on the left have learned a lesson in that, and may come out in force in 2006 to oppose these amendments."

Mobilizing a Defense

"I think we are doing things differently," says Seth Kilbourn, who heads the marriage project for the Human Rights Campaign. His gay rights group has learned some lessons. The first is to start the counterattack earlier. In 2004, most of the marriage amendments popped up in late summer, giving his group little time to react. But this year, they have 10 months to mobilize. In Wisconsin, for example, gay rights activists have set up a speakers bureau that's identified hundreds of people who will talk to their communities and civic clubs about why marriage should be available to same-sex couples.

The second lesson, Kilbourn says, is to simplify the message. "In 2004, we made the campaigns a lot about arguing that amendments go too far, that the effects are unknown, that you should be careful what you put in the constitution," he says. "But this time around, we're going to be much more direct about the underlying issue, which is marriage for same-sex couples. We need to make the case for why marriage for same-sex couples is good, why it is the true measure of equal treatment under the law. That will improve the vote."

If the message is equality, he says, the medium is personal stories.

"I think the more gay and lesbian people themselves talk about the realities of their lives, the kind of discrimination they face, the more they talk about the loves and the happiness of their lives as well, I think the faster progress occurs."

Gay Rights Advocates Face Steep Climb Ahead

Will this be enough to defeat the amendments? Kilbourn is skeptical. "I will be very happy if -- out of all the ballot measures that are fought in 2006 -- we can win one."

On a recent Saturday afternoon in Fredericksburg, Va., about 30 people are gathering to launch this uphill campaign. They are wedged into a small room in the local Unitarian Universalist church, and one by one, tell their stories. Several are gay college students at the nearby Mary Washington University. Anthony De Renzo, an 18-year-old freshman from Massachusetts, says he is willing to work 10 hours a week, making phone calls and going door to door, to defeat the amendment.

"I really want to make sure that this does not get passed by the voters of Virginia," he says. "I go to school down here. I'm making friends down here. I may be having a life down here at some point. And I would hate to not want to start a life down here because I didn't have the basic rights that I could enjoy in Massachusetts."

Others, like Heather Buchanan and Leigh D'Lugos, have been together for years, and suddenly the future looks different. "Just recently, I've become more aware of how this legislation is really going to negatively impact my life," Buchanan says. "Before it was just, 'Okay, I'm going to do what I'm supposed to do at work, do what I'm supposed to do in the neighborhood, make sure the yard looks nice, be polite to everybody, and things will go well and I won't face any discrimination.' But now, as we're getting older and thinking about having a family, now we're thinking we're going to have to move."

And others worry about losing their children to other states. "This affronts me most personally," says Susan Stanskis, whose son is gay, "because it affects whether or not my children are safe to live in this commonwealth."

Looking Toward a Generational Shift

After the introductions, Dyana Mason, who heads the gay rights group Equality Virginia, leads a brainstorming session on how to defeat the amendment when it's put to the voters in November -- by writing letters to the editor, speaking to civic and church groups, manning phone banks and going door to door. She notes that a recent poll shows that Virginians oppose marriage for same-sex couples by wide margins -- 53 to 31 percent. But she says, "Virginians are more liberal than you might think." Fifty-nine percent support civil unions, 75 percent say gay men and lesbians should be able to teach in public school, and 90 percent say they should have the right to work for the government.

"So folks are starting to get it," Mason encourages her gaggle of activists. "And I think the obstacle we're facing is the 'm' word, marriage."

After the pep talk, the group leaves energized. But Mason admits that they have a steep climb ahead of them.

"We know we need probably close to a million votes to defeat this measure at the ballot box," she explains. "We're going to do everything we can over the next 10 months to talk to as many of those people as we can. That's a huge challenge for us."

Mason is taking the long view, confident that in a generation, marriage for same-sex couples will be the law of the land. Of course, conservatives are looking ahead as well -- and pulling out all the stops to get gay marriage banned, state by state.

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Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.