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Gone but Not Forgotten

From underwear to gay adoption, some of the General Assembly's most memorable debates — on taxpayer time.



Underwear. A bill introduced by Delegate Algie T. Howell (D-Norfolk) and enthusiastically endorsed by the House of Delegates criminalized the act of wearing pants in a way that allows the exposure of "below-the-waist garments" in a "lewd or indecent manner." Had all gone well for Delegate Howell, this act would have become a misdemeanor punishable by a $50 fee.

But all did not go well for Howell. News accounts of the bill began to appear internationally, many of which depicted the Virginia General Assembly as a less than august and dignified body.

Finally, Sen. Ken Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), chairman of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, could take no more. Calling the bill "an embarrassment to Virginia, nationally and internationally," Stolle called a special committee meeting on February 9 for the sole purpose of killing the offending legislation.

In the wake of this action, a second flurry of global news stories ensued. "Virginia Drops Droopy Pants Bill," proclaimed one headline. "Senate Pulls Its Pants Up," announced another.

But perhaps some impressions will always remain. Hanover County resident Mary Bo Gassman, on vacation in Bangkok, Thailand, three weeks ago, recalls how a puzzled masseuse at the downtown Marriott instinctively asked about the bill upon learning her client was from Virginia.

"I said, Oh well, what a great way to put Virginia on the map," Gassman says. "She was not snickering about it. She was just puzzled that this would be necessary."

The Misdemeanor of Miscarriage. The underwear bill may have been embarrassing, but a proposal by another Tidewater politician requiring women to report their miscarriages to the police within 12 hours or face misdemeanor charges was downright scary. It also provoked such a storm of outrage on the Internet that its beleaguered sponsor, Delegate John A. Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake), withdrew it from consideration. The pressure: He received more than 500 e-mails from people across the country denouncing him for coming up with it.

The shaken Cosgrove insisted his bill had been misunderstood, that it was meant to punish women who abandon babies after live births, not women who had miscarriages. It was all just a big misunderstanding because of a "language problem," he told the Virginian-Pilot. "I was absolutely mistreated on this."

But Cosgrove's bill had a language problem like Janet Jackson had a wardrobe malfunction. "When a fetal death occurs without medical attendance, it shall be the woman's responsibility to report the death to the law-enforcement agency in the jurisdiction of which the delivery occurs within 12 hours after the delivery," it said.

Women who failed to report the death could have been convicted of a Class 1 misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Gay Adoption and Judy Garland. The legislature's reputation for dignity was further enhanced by a House debate over a proposal by Delegate Richard Black (R-Loudon) to add the sentence "No person may adopt under this statute if that person is a homosexual" to the state's adoption statute. This was a little too direct, even for the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee, which watered down the measure to a requirement that the state take into account "whether the petitioner is known to engage in current voluntary homosexual activity or is unmarried and cohabiting with another adult to whom he is not related by blood or marriage" when assessing the fitness of adoptive parents.

But just how exactly would state investigators go about determining the sexual orientation of adoptive parents? wondered Delegate Robert Brink (D-Arlington). "Should they check the CD collection for a Judy Garland boxed set?" he asked. This prompted Delegate Adam Ebbin (D-Arlington), the legislative body's only openly gay member, to point out that, although definitely gay, he personally does not own a Judy Garland boxed set.

Along these lofty lines, the debate continued until the ax of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee mercifully put an end to it.

And Speaking of Dignity... Not content with the Defense of Marriage Act they passed in 1997 and the ban on same-sex civil unions they passed last year, both houses of the General Assembly overwhelmingly endorsed bills to amend Article I of the Virginia Bill of Rights to once again ban gay marriage — this time by amending the constitution to define marriage as the "union of one man and one woman."

Such an amendment was necessary, argued the measures' many proponents, because traditional marriage is "under attack." So its sanctity and dignity must be defended. This line of logic managed to annoy and provoke even the generally staid and conservative readers of the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page.

"What sanctity are we trying to protect?" asked one letter-writer, pointing out that "a heterosexual couple, on the spur of the moment, can fly off to Las Vegas and get married by an Elvis impersonator and … no government entity will question the sanctity" of that marriage.

Wrote another: "Apparently there are hordes of homosexuals in Virginia trying to destroy all our heterosexual marriages. Funny — they've never bothered my husband and me and we've been married 30 years."

And finally, from a city resident, a practical suggestion: If lawmakers really want to defend traditional marriage, wrote John McCarter, they should attack "domestic abuse, the skyrocketing divorce rate, poverty or Britney Spears."

Praying in Public. Delegate Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson) also felt that the state's constitution needed amending, specifically that part written by Thomas Jefferson about religious freedom — Article I, Section 16.

The section would be much improved, Carrico thought, if he just clarified it a little by adding that "the people's right to exercise their religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including public schools, shall not be infringed." Naturally, the House agreed, passing the measure 69-27.

Once again, Senate Courts of Justice intervened. Observing that Jefferson's views on religious freedom have "survived 215 years without being tinkered with," the committee declined, 10-5, to allow editing by Carrico.

Executing the Pregnant. Delegate Bob Marshall (R-Prince William), the state's self-appointed grim reaper of reproductive rights, got unanimous endorsement from both the houses for his bill banning the execution of pregnant women, despite that the only woman on death row in Virginia has been housed in a segregated wing of the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women since June 2003.

Oddly, no one had the political stomach to even consider the bill by Delegate Vincent F. Callahan (R-Fairfax) outlawing the execution of children after they are born. After the bill languished in a subcommittee, the House Courts of Justice Committee passed by the matter indefinitely. After all, the U.S. Supreme Court had it under consideration and those guys aren't up for re-election this year.

What About Constituent Pain? For the second year in a row, Delegate Richard H. Black got overwhelming support from his colleagues in the House for his "fetal pain bill." The measure defined a fetus as "a member of the species homo sapiens from fertilization until birth" and required doctors who perform abortions to anesthetize all such members of the species "in a manner consistent with that commonly provided for a human undergoing amputation."

After the House passed his legislation by a vote of 72 to 20, it was killed for the second year in a row by the Senate Education and Health Committee. Should fetuses be defined as members of the species Homo sapiens after birth as well? Tune in next year, when Black promises to introduce his bill for the third time.

Reading, Writing and Driving. If Delegate Daniel W. Marshall (R-Danville) ran the state, only people who speak English would be allowed to drive. Sounds sensible, until you consider that if you can communicate in the English language but are deaf, mute or illiterate, that's OK by Marshall. His bill, requiring the Department of Motor Vehicles to refuse to license "persons incapable of communicating using the English language," was not to be "construed to bar the issuance of learner's permits solely because of an applicant's hearing impairment, speech impairment, or illiteracy." The measure didn't make it out of the House Courts of Justice Committee. It was close, though: 7-10.

So thank you, members of the General Assembly. We'll see you next session. Until then, our scrapbooks are fatter for your work. S

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