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Virginia Senate passes pair of nondiscrimination bills

Fair housing and public employment measures earn bipartisan support in uphill battle

James Parrish of Equality Virginia Photo by Todd Franson

James Parrish of Equality Virginia
Photo by Todd Franson

The Virginia Senate on Friday passed a pair of nondiscrimination bills with bipartisan support, sending them to the House of Delegates for consideration.

The Senate voted to approve a bill prohibiting discrimination in public employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and another that amends Virginia’s Fair Housing law to include prohibitions on discriminating against LGBT people or same-sex couples when selling or renting a house or apartment.

All 19 of the Senate’s Democrats and six Republicans voted in favor of both bills. Last year, the bill deadlocked on a 19-19, prompting Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, in his position as presiding officer of the Senate, to cast the tie-breaking vote. The legislation was later tabled and defeated in the House of Delegates, where Republicans have a majority.

James Parrish, the executive director of Equality Virginia, says his organization is “pleased” at the strong bipartisan vote for both bills. He also notes that the bill received support from six of the Senate’s seven first-term members, including four of the five first-term Republicans.

“They’re clearly voting their district,” Parrish says of the first-term senators, most of whom hail from suburban districts. “It’s great to have senators who are representing all of the people who elected them.”

The bill now faces a more hostile atmosphere in the House of Delegates, where committee chairmen, at the behest of Speaker Bill Howell (R-Fredericksburg, Stafford, Aquia Harbor) have previously shuttled LGBT bills to subcommittees stacked with members from rural or more conservative districts in hopes of killing them.

“Now we head to the House, and we hope that House legislators will listen to the will of Virginians,” says Parrish. “Just as with the majority of Americans, a majority of Virginians support protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in employment and housing.”

“We want talented workers to go to work rather than worry about how they’ll be treated and an assurance that when we attract people to Virginia they can permanently work here in a discrimination-free workplace,” Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria, Arlington, Mount Vernon), the chief patron of SB12, said in a statement.

“Today is a step forward for Virginia’s LGBTQ community,” added Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-Leesburg, Sterling, Herndon), the chief patron of SB67. “I think today’s vote shows that it’s time we extend protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in housing. Not only is this type of discrimination blatantly wrong, it is hindering our ability to bring the best and brightest talent to Virginia.”

In another bout of good news for the LGBT community, a bill that passed out of committee earlier this week that would have allowed county circuit court clerks to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples was returned to the Senate Committee on Courts of Justice on a 36-0 vote.

The bill has been nicknamed the “Kim Davis” bill on social media, referring to the Kentucky county clerk who became a household name after going to jail rather than issue licenses to same-sex couples, and has been ridiculed by pro-equality supporters. The bill’s patron, Sen. Charles “Bill” Carrico (R-Galax, Abingdon, Bristol, Gate City) previously admitted that no county clerks had been asking for such an exemption, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has vowed to veto it if it somehow manages to pass the General Assembly.

According to Ebbin, Carrico had asked that the bill be recommitted to committee to be revised and more narrowly tailored to target same-sex marriages, while ensuring that clerks would not be able to refuse to issue licenses for interracial or interfaith marriages.

“In my view, [Carrico] wants to narrow the bill to his preferred brand of bigotry,” says Ebbin. “It’s legal to be a bigot, it’s legal to be ignorant, it’s legal to hate people. What is not legal is to not abide by the constitutional oath that clerks swear to uphold the constitutions of the United States and Virginia. This bill seeks to relieve them of that responsibility, in a patently unconstitutional way.”

Ebbin believes he will be able to marshal enough support to defeat the bill if and when it is brought back before the full Senate, thus not necessitating a McAuliffe veto.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include comments from Senators Adam Ebbin and Jennifer Wexton.

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

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