The Virginia General Assembly kicked off its 2014 session Wednesday, Jan. 8, with legislators from both parties introducing bills that could positively impact LGBT people, including a push for marriage equality, second-parent adoption and various nondiscrimination measures.
Despite polls showing public opinion in favor of such measures – as well as the support of Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov-elect Ralph Northam and Attorney General-elect Mark Herring – progress on any one of those bills will be an uphill battle in the closely divided Virginia Senate and the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.
Following a victory by Democrat Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke City) in a special election in the 11th House District Tuesday, Jan. 7, Republicans control the lower chamber 67-33. In the Senate, Republicans still enjoy a 20-18 edge. Following Tuesday's election for the 6th Senate District, Democrat Lynwood Lewis leads Republican Wayne Coleman by just 10 votes as of Wednesday evening, meaning a recount is likely. If Lewis's lead holds, control of the Senate will then fall to the 33rd Senate District race in eastern Loudoun and western Fairfax counties. A Democratic victory would split the chamber 20-20, with Northam serving as a tie-breaking vote.
On marriage, Democratic delegates and senators have introduced no less than seven bills aimed at repealing Virginia's Marshall-Newman Amendment, a constitutional amendment that prohibits the recognition of any relationship between same-sex partners and defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman, which was approved by voters in 2006 by a 57-43 margin. In the House, Dels. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond, Henrico, Charles City counties), Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax Co.), Ken Plum (Fairfax Co.), Rob Krupicka (D-Alexandria City, Arlington, Fairfax counties) and Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria City) have introduced bills to repeal the amendment, which would also need voter approval. On the Senate side, Sen. Janet Howell (D-Arlington, Fairfax counties) and Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria City, Arlington, Fairfax counties), the General Assembly's only out legislator, have introduced the companion bill. Newly elected Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church, Fairfax Co.) has also signed on as a co-patron to most of the seven bills.
The marriage bills face tough obstacles in either chamber, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats not universally supporting marriage equality. In the Senate, both Howell's and Ebbin's bills have been referred to the Committee on Privileges and Elections, which Republicans control 8-7. Another obstacle for the bill might be gaining the support of Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City, Fairfax Co.), a current member of the committee and one of three Democratic senators who do not support marriage equality.
In the House, all five bills to repeal Marshall-Newman have been referred to that chamber's Committee on Privileges and Elections, which Republicans control 15-7. And one Democrat on that committee, Johnny Joannou (Norfolk, Portsmouth), has consistently voted against pro-LGBT bills. The remaining six Democrats on the committee support marriage equality, while Equality Virginia PAC-endorsed committee Republican Del. Joseph Yost (Giles, Montgomery, Pulaski counties, Radford), has gone as far as supporting repeal of the amendment. Regardless, Committee Chairman Mark Cole (Fredericksburg, Stafford, Fauquier, Spotsylvania counties) will likely refer the bills to a subcommittee, essentially killing it, to avoid forcing five committee Republicans from Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia to take a position on the measure.
While Equality Virginia, the commonwealth's major LGBT rights organization, obviously supports the amendment-repeal bills, its efforts this session will be focus on other measures, such as Sen. A. Donald McEachin's (D-Richmond, Henrico, Hanover, Charles City counties) SB248 to prohibit discrimination in state employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. A similar bill, Equality Virginia's top 2013 legislative priority, passed the Senate 24-16 with the support of four Republicans before being killed in the House. McEachin's bill is currently awaiting a vote in the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology. All seven Democrats on the committee and Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Winchester, Frederick, Clarke, Loudoun, Culpeper, Fauquier, Stafford counties) have previously supported the bill. Still, the House roadblock remains.
Del. Simon and Del. Ron Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach, Chesapeake) have introduced bills to amend the Virginia Human Rights Act to prohibit employment discrimination against people based on sexual orientation, which both bills define as ''a person's actual or perceived heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality, or gender identity or expression.'' Both bills await votes in the House General Laws Committee.
James Parrish, the executive director of Equality Virginia, says his organization supports the spirit of both bills, but believes that the language needs to be amended, characterizing the bills' mention of barring sexual conduct with minors as offensive and unnecessary in an employment-nondiscrimination bill. That language was originally included in the first draft of the 2013 state employment-nondiscrimination bill, but was amended in Senate committee to include separate and more precise definitions of ''sexual orientation'' and ''gender identity'' and omit any references that would have linked sexual orientation to sex with minors. Parrish notes that if Simon and Villanueva change their language to be more in line with SB248 and the final version of the 2013 bill that passed the Senate, Equality Virginia would fully support them. But Parrish also noted that because SB248 is more narrowly tailored – dealing only with state employment – and has previously passed the Senate, its passage is considered more ''achievable'' than the Simon or Villanueva bills.
On another LGBT-related issue, Dels. Simon and Yost have introduced bills to prohibit discrimination in housing based on ''sexual orientation.'' As with the employment-nondiscrimination bills, Parrish says Equality Virginia would like to see the bills' language more specifically define ''sexual orientation'' and ''gender identity'' and eliminate references to ''sexually deviant disorders,'' which have nothing to do with sexual orientation, even if the intent of both bills was not to make such an offensive comparison. Both housing bills are awaiting votes in the House General Laws Committee.
Besides nondiscrimination legislation, Equality Virginia is backing Sen. Howell's SB336, which would allow for same-sex, second-parent adoption.
Parrish says Yost is expected to introduce a similar bill in the House. Meanwhile, Howell's bill is awaiting a vote in the Senate Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services.
Equality Virginia is also backing bills by Del. Krupicka and Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun counties) to allow the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to produce Equality Virginia license plates reading ''Equality for All.'' While the General Assembly must approve plate designs, there is also a threshold of 450 prepaid applications within 30 days of the bill going into effect.
Equality Virginia has also been working with the Alliance for Progressive Values and others to recruit witnesses to testify on two possible bills expected to be introduced soon by Sen. Ebbin and Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington Co.). These measures would ban ''reparative'' – aka ''ex-gay'' – therapy for those younger than 18. Similar laws have taken effect in California and New Jersey.
Certainly, not all bills being introduced this session are LGBT-friendly. Specifically, Equality Virginia is opposing a bill drafted by the notoriously anti-gay Del. Bob Marshall (R-Manassas Park, Prince William Co.) to codify a November announcement by the Virginia Department of Taxation that it will require married same-sex couples to file their Virginia income tax returns as individuals, though such couples may file federal returns jointly. Marshall's bill has been referred to the House Finance Committee.
''We oppose this bill that would codify the discriminatory ruling from the Taxation Department,'' says Parrish.