LGBT-equality advocates in Virginia are celebrating a small victory after SB701, a bill prohibiting discrimination in public employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, passed out of the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee on an 8-7 vote Monday evening, clearing its first hurdle on what supporters hope is its path to eventual passage.
The bill was introduced by Democratic Senators A. Donald McEachin and Adam Ebbin.
Regarding employment protections based on sexual orientaion and gender identity/expression, the commonwealth lags significantly behind the private sector, as many of the top employers in the state, including consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., quasi-governmental mortgage lender Freddie Mac, defense firms Northrop Grumman Corp. and General Dynamics Corp., Capital One Financial Corp., Dominion Resources Inc., Volkswagen Group of America Inc., and computer and data services firms Computer Sciences Corp. and SRA International Inc. have already adopted such policies, according to the Human Rights Campaign's 2013 Corporate Equality Index.
Since its introduction, 15 other Senate Democrats, 28 House Democrats and three House Republicans – Thomas Rust (R-Fairfax and Loudoun counties), R. Lee Ware (R-Chesterfield, Powhatan, Goochland and Fluvanna counties) and Joseph Yost (R-Radford, Giles, Montgomery and Pulaski counties) - have signed on as co-patrons of SB701.
Having been voted out of committee, the bill will now receive a vote by the 40-member senate, which is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. If it passes the upper chamber, it will then be sent to the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.
"We're glad the committee listened to the thousands of Virginians that messaged their delegates and senators on this issue," James Parrish, the executive director of Equality Virginia, said in a statement released following the committee vote. "Now, we must continue spreading the word about the importance of workplace protections for our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender state employees to move this out of the Senate."
The bill's progress towards a floor vote was made possible after Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Winchester, Frederick, Clarke, Culpepper, Loudoun, Fauquier and Stafford counties), one of only three Republicans representing Northern Virginia and the chamber's sole female Republican, voted with the committee’s seven Democrats to move the bill to the floor. Vogel was also one of eight Republicans who voted last week to confirm Virginia's first openly gay judge, Tracy Thorne-Begland, to a six-year term on the Richmond General District Court, one year after Republicans in the House of Delegates rejected his nomination due to concerns about his sexual orientation.
"We're excited that Sen. Vogel joined us on the vote for fairness and equal treatment for state employees," Ebbin told Metro Weekly in an interview after the vote.
In addition to Vogel, supporters of SB701 also garnered the votes of Sen. Chuck Colgan (D-Manassas, Manassas Park, Prince William Co.) and Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City, Fairfax Co.), two of three Senate Democrats who did not sign on as co-patrons of the bill.
With the support of Vogel, Colgan, Petersen and the 17 Democratic co-patrons, the bill's fate will rest largely on the support of Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Surry, Sussex, Franklin, Emporia, Greensville and Brunswick counties), the remaining Senate Democrat who is not cosponsoring the bill.
Lucas last year signed a statement to LGBT rights group Equality Virginia saying she would not discriminate in hiring, but did not specifically say whether that would pertain to sexual orientation or gender identity, while at five Senate Republicans, including Vogel, did. But Ebbin noted that Lucas has supported other nondiscrimination measures in previous sessions.
Due to the late hour at which the committee finished hearing testimony on the bill, it has not yet been added to the calendar. However, Ebbin said he expected the vote to occur this week, most likely on Thursday, Jan. 24.
Ebbin said he was optimistic that the measure would pass the chamber, though he noted that the House remains a challenging environment. But he said advocates were continuing to push forward in their attempts to pass the bill through the General Assembly.
Anna Scholl, the executive director of the left-leaning group ProgressVA, also issued a statement praising Monday's committee vote.
"We're extraordinarily pleased members of the Senate recognize no Virginian should face discrimination because of who they are or who they love," Scholl said. "Protecting all state employees from workplace discrimination brings Virginia into line with the private sector standard and ensures we can recruit the best and brightest to lead our Commonwealth forward."
LGBT advocates believe that the majority of constituents in the Commonwealth are supportive of nondiscrimination protections such as those contained in SB701. Equality Virginia recently said it has a "bipartisan" poll from Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates and the Schapiro Group that shows that 90 percent of Virginians believe gay and lesbian employees should have the right to work for the government without discrimination.
In addition, Equality Virginia, ProgressVA, and other like-minded groups have been working behind the scenes to build a network of relationships with Virginians and local elected officials throughout the state with the aim of rallying those grassroots partners to call or lobby their legislators on behalf of the bill. Last week, Equality Virginia reported that the General Assembly had received more than 11,000 constituent messages asking reticent legislators to support the measure.
"Our president spoke eloquently today in his inauguration speech by saying, 'Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,'" Parrish said in a statement. "This bill is an opportunity for our lawmakers at home to give all LGBT Virginians an opportunity for fairness and job security."
[Photo 1: Sen. Adam Ebbin (courtesy of campaign site). Photo 2: Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (courtesy of Virginia General Assembly website).]