Metro Weekly

Virginia’s Anti-Gay Discrimination Bill Tabled

House panel rejects Bob Marshall's bill, but also tables measures on fair housing, employment nondiscrimination

A Virginia House of Delegates subcommittee dealt the LGBT community in the commonwealth a rare bit of good news after the eight-person panel rejected a bill patroned by Del. Bob Marshall (R-Manassas Park, Sudley, Bull Run), a longtime foe of the LGBT community, that would have essentially allowed any person or business in the commonwealth to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Del. Bob Marshall

Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas Park

Marshall’s bill, HB1414, would have allowed a “conscience clause” exemption for people or businesses who must obtain or renew a license, registration, or other certification from the commonwealth of Virginia, its political subdivisions, and its various agencies, boards or departments. Under the bill, those people would not be required to “perform, assist, consent to or participate in any action” that would violate their moral convictions as they relate, not just to to same-sex marriage, but to actual or perceived homosexuality, and behavior that can be interpreted as being homosexual in nature. In practice, that means that any person or business that undergoes licensing or certification, such as a restaurant, could refuse service to LGBT individuals or couples, and could not be compelled to serve them under the threat of the state revoking or refusing to renew their license or certification. Other such entities or professionals that undergo certification and licensing from the state include bars, bakeries, grocery stores, hotels, gyms, hairdressers and barbershops, plumbers, and electricians, to name a few. 

Equality Virginia, the commonwealth’s top LGBT rights organization, issued a statement following the hearing praising the committee’s rejection of Marshall’s bill. 

“Equality Virginia applauds the subcommittee for voting against this discriminatory and destructive bill,” said James Parrish, the executive director of Equality Virginia. “This bill would have hurt too many people, damaged our business climate, and highlighted Virginia as a hostile and unwelcoming place to live and work. The majority of Virginians agree that discrimination against LGBT people is wrong, and, thankfully, today’s vote reflects that opinion.”

But LGBT rights advocates’ joy was short-lived, as the subcommittee set about killing any pro-LGBT pieces of legislation that came before it. The members decided to table via a voice vote HB1454, a bill that would have prohibited discrimination in housing, patroned by Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church City, Merrifield, Pimmit Hills). A measure similar to Simon’s bill, patroned by Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-Leesburg, Sterling, Herndon), also failed in committee in the Senate, stalling on a 7-7 vote. 

According to a three-part study conducted in the Richmond area in 2014 by Housing Opportunities Made Equal, Inc. (HOME), LGBT couples were 31 percent more likely to experience discrimination or be rejected for housing than a straight couple applying for the same apartment.  HOME conducted 29 matched-pair email tests to determine whether renters responded differently to prospective tenants, contrasting the treatment or response received by a same-sex couple with that received by a heterosexual couple. 

“Last year, when a similar bill was up for debate, some legislators suggested that there was no evidence of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” HOME said in a press release sent out Thursday. “HOME’s research clearly shows that discrimination is occurring. …Housing discrimination such as this leads to longer housing searches, spending more money and acquiring less desirable housing. This makes obtaining and maintaining stable housing more expensive and more difficult for those who experience discrimination. Sexual orientation and gender identity are irrelevant to one’s ability to be a paying, respectful tenant, yet these characteristics are regularly being used to deny qualified home seekers access to housing.”

“All Virginians should be treated equally in the housing market,” Simon said in a statement referring to HOME’s research that was released prior to the subcommittee’s vote. “This study raises serious doubts as to whether that is true for same-sex couples in Virginia.”

Following the vote of the subcommittee, Simon took to his Facebook page and expressed his frustration with the outcome, but also took solace that he had done the best to debunk any rationalizations for defeating his bill. 

“Sometimes it’s hard to make progress in the Virginia General Assembly — so you take your victories where you can find them,” Simon wrote. “This year my bill to add sexual orientation to Virginia’s Fair Housing statute garnered 24 co-patrons from both sides of the aisle. At our subcommittee hearing today, we answered every objection the subcommittee had raised in the past to explain their opposition to this reasonable legislation. Not one member spoke against the bill, nor did they have any question for me or my witnesses.

“The bill still went down on a straight-line partisan vote — but I think we’ve made it difficult for anyone to create a non-discriminatory basis for their vote,” Simon continued. “Now it is up to their constituents to hold them accountable for those votes.”

House General Laws Sub4

The Republicans voting against the bill were: Nick Rush (R-Christiansburg, Pulaski, Floyd); Tommy Wright (R-Victoria, Boydton, Cumberland, Amelia Court House); Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach, Chesapeake); David Ramadan (R-South Riding, Sterling, Gainesville); Keith Hodges (R-Urbanna, Gloucester Courthouse, Mathews); and Richard “Dickie” Bell (R-Staunton, Waynesboro, Monterey).

Democrats Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond City, Montrose, Bellwood) and Kaye Kory (D-Falls Church, Lake Barcroft, Annandale) voted in favor of Simon’s bill. 

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In addition, the subcommittee voted — via a voice vote but again on a partisan basis — to table measures that would have prohibited discrimination in public employment, one, HB1498, patroned by Del. Ken Plum (D-Reston), and the other, HB1643, patroned by Del. Ron Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach, Chesapeake). Despite both Plum and Villanueva testifying in favor of the measures, as well as Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia (ACLU-VA), the idea of employment nondiscrimination was opposed by both the Catholic Conference and the Family Foundation of Virginia, a right-wing lobbying and policy organization that pushes “pro-family” and socially conservative policies that it wants the Virginia General Assembly to enact. 

Equality Virginia’s Parrish said the failure of the housing and employment nondiscrimination bills just highlights the need to work harder. 

“As happy as we are that HB1414 didn’t make it out of committee, today’s votes against fairness and nondiscrimination make it clear that our work is far from over,” Parrish said. “Even as a bill to protect LGBT public employees from workplace discrimination moves through the Senate, we expect the anti-LGBT majority in the House of Delegates to stall any progress. We have also seen bills to ensure access to fair housing and to update the Code to accurately reflect marriage equality die on the spot. The majority of Virginians believe in fairness and equality, and it is discouraging to see so many of our legislators unwilling to stand with them for what is right.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com