Proposed Virginia Amendment Banning Gay Marriage Stirs Debate on College Campuses

The woman who confronted Virginia Tech student Leslie Crews over her views on gay marriage didn't say a word. Instead, she snatched a Students 4 Marriage sticker from the information booth Crews had set up, crumpled it and threw it at the senior.

"I just said, 'Have a nice day,"' recalled Crews, who admitted she was shaken by the incident a few weeks back on Tech's Blacksburg campus.

Virginia's college campuses are the latest battleground for the divisive debate over same-sex marriage in the commonwealth, as leaders on both sides of the issue tap young voters they hope will become supporters this fall and beyond. There were over 400,000 registered voters ages 18 to 25 in Virginia last year, according to the State Board of Elections.

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From the University of Virginia to the College of William and Mary, students are organizing protests and panel discussions on the amendment that would limit marriage to opposite-sex couples, guided by coalitions that see Virginia's youngest voters as the next frontier.

In the last month, amendment opponents have staged a forum at Radford University, campaigned dorm-to-dorm at the University of Richmond, and sponsored a series of rallies at U.Va., including an Oct. 6 speech by Candace Gingrich, sister of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Student supporters of the amendment are organizing their own panels and debates. Students 4 Marriage protested an anti-amendment rally at George Mason University earlier this month and have planned literature drops at schools where they have chapters, among them, Regent University, the Virginia Beach college founded by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson.

Students like Elizabeth Prescott are paying special attention to the heightening gay marriage debate. The junior at George Mason visited Richmond last week for a student debate at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"It's important to everyone, but especially young people," said Prescott, who thought young adults were more open minded.

Both sides of the debate have placed a high value on these young voters, who they believe can infuse their campaigns with energy, as well as votes.

"Student activism has always been a cornerstone of social justice and social change," explained Dyana Mason, head of Equality Virginia, a gay rights group. "On this particular issue, it's no different."

In students, conservative leaders see passionate young voters who could support traditional causes for years to come, explained Victoria Cobb, head of the Family Foundation, supporters of the amendment.

"Getting them involved is critical because it will set the stage for what they'll be doing in terms of voting for the rest of their lives," Cobb said.

Her Richmond group has helped organize 20 chapters of Students 4 Marriage, the conservative answer to an assortment of student groups working against the amendment on Virginia campuses. Their involvement comes during the critical last weeks leading up to the Nov. 7 referendum.

Statewide, gay marriage supporters are trying to persuade a largely traditional voter base. At colleges, conservatives face the uphill struggle.

They're preaching old-fashioned values to students often influenced by MTV, not the GOP.

Their battle is reflected in their numbers: While an estimated 650 students attended an Oct. 5 rally against the amendment at George Mason, only 30 came to a counter protest senior Ryan Gleason organized.

Gleason, head of Students 4 Marriage at the Fairfax campus, has struggled to gain members. Students fear coming out as conservative will lose them cool points, or worse, brand them homophobic, he said.

"That's the biggest fear," Gleason said. "That people ... aren't going to like you."

Students at Tech tried to create a conservative safe zone where like-minded students could meet and find support. They posted fliers bearing red, white and blue triangles — a play on the pink triangle symbol of the gay rights movement.

"They got ripped down immediately," said Crews, adding that at most colleges, "It's a lot easier to express liberal views."

At the VCU debate in Richmond, students spent an hour nibbling on pizza and sipping cola as their classmates laid out their arguments.

Prescott listened quietly to both sides — students in "Vote No" T-shirts who argued against the amendment's language, versus buttoned-down amendment supporters questioning how marriage should be defined.

On Nov. 7, she said, she'll vote against the amendment.

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