A Virginia Senate committee narrowly approved a bill prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public employment, moving the measure out of committee and to the floor for a vote by the full 40-member Senate.
The bill, SB785, patroned by Sen. Don McEachin (D-Richmond City, Ashland, Charles City), had previously been combined with another bill, SB1181, patroned by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria, Arlington, Belle Haven), that extend protections to LGBT workers. While Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed an executive order protecting LGBT state employees from discrimination upon taking office last year, SB785 would make those protections permanent, and extend them to other public-sector employees. Without the passage of SB785 or a similar bill, McAuliffe’s executive order will be limited in its scope, and, even more importantly, will expire at the end of McAuliffe’s term in office.
In a closely divided Senate where every vote matters, the bill flirted with danger and nearly went down to defeat last Monday after Sen. Chuck Colgan (D-Manassas, Manassas Park, Dale City) was absent and failed to have a proxy vote on his behalf. But quick-thinking legislators allied with the LGBT community moved that the bill be postponed to the following week, setting it up for a vote of the full Committee on General Laws and Technology on Jan. 26.
The measure passed 8-7, with all Democrats on the committee and Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Upperville, Winchester, Aldie, Jeffersonton) voting in favor of it. Vogel previously voted in favor of other nondiscrimination bills, and has been a strong ally in helping to move legislation through the chamber as a member of the majority party. Republicans currently control the Senate 21-19. If Vogel and all 19 Democrats are present and vote in the affirmative on the bill, the measure would deadlock 20-20, leaving Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), an LGBT ally, to cast the deciding vote. Proponents of the bill will likely look to other Republicans in the chamber for additional votes, such as those who voted for similar nondiscrimination bills in previous legislative sessions, like Senators Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach, Norfolk), John Watkins (R-Midlothian, Bon Air, Richmond City), and Tommy Norment (R-Williamsburg, Poquoson, Suffolk, King and Queen Court House).b
The committee also voted 12-2 to approve SB1211, a bill patroned by Ebbin that would revise all gender-specific references in the Code of Virginia, such as those relating to marriage, adoption or inheritance rights. The bill would change those gender-specific terms such as “husband” and “wife” to the gender-neutral term “spouse” and “father” and “mother” to “parent,” for example. Ebbin proposed the bill in light of the decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a ruling by a lower court judge finding Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional in the case of Bostic v. Schaefer (previously known as Bostic v. Rainey).
If passed by the Senate, the employment nondiscrimination bill — the biggest legislative priority being championed by pro-LGBT advocates this session — would face an entrenched Republican majority in the House of Delegates, which controls the lower chamber 67-32-1. Typically, any bills even tangentially related to LGBT issues are shuttled to hostile subcommittees in hopes of killing the bills. The House also has yet to weigh in on two of its own bills, similar in scope to McEachin’s legislation, that would prevent discrimination in public employment. One of those bills is patroned by Del. Ken Plum (D-Reston), but the other is patroned by Del. Ron Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach, Chesapeake), who has slowly evolved to be supportive of the idea of marriage equality and has also sponsored a bill relating to a study on housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Villanueva’s support makes him one of four Republicans who have previously indicated some level of support for nondiscrimination legislation, along with Delegates Gordon Helsel (R-Poquoson, Hampton, Grafton), Tom Rust (R-Herndon, Sterling) and Joseph Yost (R-Blacksburg, Pearisburg, Radford), who earned LGBT rights group Equality Virginia’s endorsement during the 2013 election.
Adding another interesting wrinkle is the fact that, in addition to Yost and Helsel, the House Committee on General Laws has five Republicans from LGBT-friendly Northern Virginia on the committee. So even if Chairman Todd Gilbert (R-Woodstock, Front Royal, Luray) shuffles the nondiscrimination bills to a subcommittee in hopes of killing them, he could end up putting some of his fellow Republicans in a bind, particularly if activists mount strong campaigns demanding a vote by the full committee of 22 legislators, rather than a select handful of anti-gay lawmakers on a subcommittee. Add in that 2015 is an election year for the members of the General Assembly, and it would not be a surprise if Democrats used the bill’s defeat — or lawmakers’ reticence to take a position one way or another on it — to paint those Republicans as either extremists or cowards in an attempt to shatter the “moderate” image that the Republicans have worked to portray when speaking to mainstream media outlets such as The Washington Post, The Loudoun Times-Mirror or The Fairfax County Times.
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The five Northern Virginia Republicans on the House Committee on General Laws are: Tag Greason (R-Potomac Falls, Ashburn, Broadlands); David Ramadan (R-South Riding, Sterling, Gainesville), Rich Anderson (R-Woodbridge, Lake Ridge, Nokesville), David Albo (R-Springfield, West Springfield, Lorton) and James LeMunyon (R-Oak Hill, Chantilly).
While it gears up for its “Lobby Day” on Tuesday, Feb. 3, when it will attempt to have constituents meet with their respective legislators in hopes of convincing them to support pro-LGBT bills, Equality Virginia took time to celebrate one of the few victories it has enjoyed so far during this legislative session.
“We are glad the [Senate] committee voted in support of fairness and equality, and hope to see this bill pass out of the Senate as well,” said James Parrish, Equality Virginia’s executive director. “As the majority of Fortune 500 corporations know, putting a policy in place to protect LGBT employees is not only the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense. It is time for Virginia to follow the lead of our business community by passing a law to protect LGBT public employees.
“Virginians want to live in a commonwealth that is welcoming and inclusive — and this bill is a step toward that ideal,” Parrish continued. “With bipartisan support for workplace fairness, the message is clear: it’s time to end workplace discrimination against LGBT Virginians. By voting for this bill, our lawmakers can give LGBT Virginians equal opportunity for fairness and job security while showing that Virginia is a welcoming place to live, work and visit.”
Editor’s Note: This article was updated to include additional information on the passage of SB1211.