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.
The bill's sponsor, Republican state Delegate Robert G. Marshall, said he introduced the legislation because he feared people might get used to the gradual erosion of traditional marriages as a result of trends in other states: Massachusetts has legalized same-sex marriage; civil unions are legal in Vermont; gays have some domestic partnership rights in California and Hawaii; and a new partnership law takes effect in New Jersey on July 1.
In passing the bill by a veto-proof majority in April, the GOP-controlled General Assembly brushed aside an amendment by Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner, who sought to remove language banning any "partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage."
Warner, an opponent of same-sex marriage, questioned the constitutionality of the law. Critics contend it interferes with the right to enter into contracts and violates the 14th Amendment guaranteeing due process and equal protection.
"I will not support legislation that again takes Virginia so far out of the mainstream in terms of public policy," Warner said, referring to the state's past resistance to civil rights and other social reforms.
Virginia currently bans adoptions by gay and lesbian couples and places limits on the ability of some companies to offer domestic partnership benefits. And state lawmakers this year rejected efforts to rewrite Virginia's anti-sodomy law in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a similar ban in Texas.
Marshall's bill, introduced as an amendment to the state's 1997 Affirmation of Marriage Act, won the support of conservative groups that, like Marshall, thought the institution of marriage was threatened by liberal trends outside Virginia.
"The goal of groups like Equality Virginia" -- a gay-rights organization that has said it would raise legal challenges to the law -- "is to force society to view homosexuals as a persecuted class, rather than a group of individuals who have made choices in personal behavior that have serious public consequences," the Family Foundation of Virginia said in a statement.
Marshall, 60, said his decision to introduce the legislation was "not done with malice."
"Everyone is a creature in God's eyes, and we're all going to get judged one day," he said. "Who knows? Maybe I'll have to pay a heavy price for once being a liberal Democratic -- or worse for now being a conservative Republican."
Instead, Marshall said, he was motivated by a desire to stop the advance of gay rights. "If you outrage the [heterosexual] people in a short period of time, you are more likely to preserve the status quo than if you let people get used to stuff over time. So I thought, 'I'll put this in and see if we draw fire.' "
He drew plenty.
Gay-rights activists have mobilized, calling for tourists to spend their vacations elsewhere and asking consumers to boycott Virginia-based companies' goods and services. One group, VirginiaisforHaters.org, plays off of the state tourism motto: "Virginia is for lovers."
A month after Marshall introduced his bill, 50 gay and lesbian couples entered the circuit court clerk's office in Richmond, the state capital, seeking what they knew they would be denied -- marriage licenses. One of the couples was the Rev. Robin Gorsline of the Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond, whose congregation is largely gay and lesbian, and his partner, the Rev. Tim Kutzmark of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church in suburban Glen Allen.
"Almost every week I counsel couples who are committed to each other and may already have been together for 10, 15 years," Gorsline said. "They come with the same issues -- whether they're straight, gay or lesbian -- about how to make a marriage work, how to have a good relationship. It's about money and all the others issues couples have to work through.
"People are going to discover that Massachusetts isn't going to fall apart because it's allowed gay marriages. Straight families are going to go on just as they always have. But the idea that the institution of marriage is such a perfect one is really quite ludicrous to me when I see the divorce rate, the amount of domestic violence. And having seen all that, I don't think we should ban straight marriage, though it's clearly a social problem."