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Virginian LGBT public employees who do not work for the state must wait another year to gain workplace protections after a bill that would have prevented them from being fired without cause because of their sexual orientation and gender identity was indefinitely passed by on a voice vote in a House subcommittee.
SB785, patroned by Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond City, Ashland, Charles City) narrowly passed the Senate on Feb. 3 by a 19-19 vote, with Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam casting the tie-breaking vote that moved the measure from the upper chamber to the House of Delegates. Upon its arrival in the House, the bill was assigned to the House Committee on General Laws, which subsequently assigned it to Subcommittee #4, which typically deals with employment, housing, licensing or certification by the state, and veterans affairs, among other issues. As Metro Weekly noted prior to the vote, the bill’s defeat was not much of a shock: Republicans control the committee, 6-2, and had earlier killed two House bills that were similar in scope to SB785. In addition, the six Republicans that sit on that particular subcommittee are viewed as more hostile to LGBT rights when compared to most of the other nine Republicans who sit on the full Committee on General Laws.
“It is shameful that this subcommittee can’t come together in support of a commonsense bill that reflects the beliefs held by the majority of Virginians,” James Parrish, the executive director of Equality Virginia, said following the committee’s rejection of McEachin’s bill. “Ideology should not stand in the way of achieving fairness and equality — something that would benefit all Virginians.”
The defeat of the employment nondiscrimination bill also marks the final defeat of any pro-LGBT legislation introduced during the 2015 legislative session. A day earlier, the House Committee on Courts of Justice’s Subcommittee on Civil Law defeated by a voice vote SB1211, a bill that sought to amend and update gender-specific references in the Code of Virginia to reflect the reality that same-sex couples are marrying and adopting and raising children in the commonwealth after the state’s longstanding statute and 2006 voter-approved constitutional amendment, both of which banned any recognition of same-sex relationships, were overturned by a federal court. Two other House bills, HJ492 and HJ493, which sought to begin the process of repealing the language of that now-defunct constitutional amendment, were heard but never voted upon prior to Jan. 11, which marked “crossover,” when all bills from one legislative chamber must be passed in order to be considered by the other legislative chamber.
State employees in Virginia are still protected under Executive Order One, which prohibits discrimination against LGBT state employees, and was signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe on his first day in office. However, that executive order only lasts as long as McAuliffe remains in office. McEachin’s bill would have made those protections for state employees permanent and expanded those protections to all public employees, including first responders, county or city government workers, and teachers, among others.
“Virginians want to live in a commonwealth that is welcoming and inclusive,” Parrish said, citing polling showing that most Virginians believe that LGBT people should have the right to work without facing discrimination. “Today, the subcommittee members missed an opportunity to give LGBT Virginians an equal chance for fairness and job security. Public employees must now go yet another year without workplace protections.”
Unfortunately, as Parrish noted in an interview with Metro Weekly, very few Virginians are aware of or pay attention to the machinations of the General Assembly, meaning it is hard to rally support for LGBT workplace protections, particularly since many people think they already exist in law. So even though 2015 is an election year, it is hard even for measures that have widespread support to gain traction and even harder for constituents to holds candidates’ feet to the fire. Add in that most districts are heavily gerrymandered in favor of Republicans, and most delegates are more likely to oppose LGBT-related bills out of fear of losing to a more conservative primary challenger, rather than losing the general election to an LGBT-supportive Democrat.
Still Equality Virginia is undeterred, continuing to make the case that many Virginia businesses, including several Fortune 500 companies and most of the commonwealth’s major employers, already embrace LGBT protections and provide spousal benefits to their employees in same-sex relationships. The organization also hopes to highlight small businesses that are LGBT-friendly through its new “Equality Means Business” campaign.
“These companies know that policies welcoming diversity and inclusion are not only good for business, but are the right thing to do,” Parrish said. “It’s time for the Commonwealth of Virginia to catch up to the business community.”
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