Metro Weekly

Virginia Republicans kill all pro-LGBTQ housing and employment bills

GOP House Speaker pressures subcommittee to kill bills in order to avoid a floor vote

Photo: Progress Virginia.

Republican lawmakers in Richmond killed four bills that would have ensured LGBTQ people were not discriminated against in housing or public employment.

Going down to defeat were a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill by Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria), a fair housing bill by Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church), a similar Senate bill by Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-Leesburg), and a measure to ban discrimination in public employment by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria).

A fifth bill, also dealing with housing, was removed from the docket at the request of its patron, Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Woodbridge).

Unfortunately, the writing was on the wall for any pro-LGBTQ bills after a coin flip gave Republicans control of the lower chamber by a 51-49 margin.

House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Woodstock), and GOP Caucus Chairman Tim Hugo (R-Centreville) set about making committee assignments, ignoring proportional representation on both committees and subcommittees.

As a result, all committees were stacked 12-10 in Republicans’ favor, and all subcommittees 5-3 in Republicans’ favor, with the additional possibility of committee chairmen — who serve as “ex officio” members — casting a ninth vote in case of a 4-4 tie.

On Wednesday, without less than 24 hours of public notice, Cox made behind-the-scenes maneuvers to ensure that all the pro-LGBTQ bills ended up in a subcommittee whose GOP members are largely social conservatives from Republican-leaning districts.

On Thursday afternoon, all five Republicans on the subcommittee voted to table each bill, effectively killing them until next year’s session (though, realistically, probably until a future time when Democrats regain control of the House of Delegates).

Delegates Betsy Carr (D-Richmond) and Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) voted against the motions to table. Del. Jeion Ward (D-Hampton) was absent. McQuinn also took a point of personal privilege, giving an impassioned speech from the dais expressing her frustration at the bill’s defeat.

“I sit there and I’ve listened, year after year…. And in many ways, I’m just so saddened that we have not gotten farther than this,” McQuinn said. “I’ve been discriminated against, [and] it’s been a double discrimination, I’m an African-American and I am a woman. And it seems like these systems of hierarchy that have been established over the years do a disservice to us as a commonwealth.

“We have an obligation as leaders to set the standards. We have an obligation to be giants in this,” McQuinn continued. “People, regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of the color of their skin, regardless of their gender, must be treated with dignity, they must be treated with respect, in an honorable way. And we must be leaders in cultivating the right spirit in terms of how people are treated.”

What was most frustrating for LGBTQ activists was the scope of support for the bills, particularly Ebbin and Wexton’s, which passed the state Senate last month with overwhelming bipartisan support from half of all Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-Williamsburg).

In addition, everyday Virginians — both LGBTQ and heterosexual — as well as fair housing advocates, the Virginia Realtors Association, the Home Builders Association of Virginia, and pro-business groups like the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Northern Virginia Technology Council, spoke in support of the bill. Yet the bulk of the subcommittee members seemed unmoved by their pleas.

“I’m gravely disappointed in today’s vote,” James Parrish, the executive director of Equality Virginia, said in a statement. “Four pro-LGBT bills were killed on a party-line vote, revealing just how disconnected House leadership is from their constituents.”

Parrish noted that he thought this session might have been a turning point when Democrats won a number of elections last November to narrow the GOP’s majority down from 66 to 51 seats. But he accused Cox, Gilbert, and Hugo of playing politics to ensure the defeat of the bills.

“What is taking place today is an alarming effort to vote down basic fairness legislation that has broad support,” Parrish said when addressing the subcommittee. He added that he does not believe any of the subcommittee members would be willing to argue in favor of discrimination against LGBTQ Virginians, which made the subcommittee’s decision to follow instructions from leadership all the more “painful.”

“I know many of you, and I know how you actually feel about these issues. You’ve told me privately, or I’ve heard from one of your friends, family members, or business partners. So I can’t fathom how you can look at me today and take a vote that would allow me to be fired from a government job or denied a home, Parrish continued. “So yes, this process is personal. And we will not let the procedural minutiae distract Virginians from what Speaker Cox, Delegate Hugo, and Delegate Gilbert are doing today.

“How will you explain this vote? Every one of you has gay or transgender friends, family members, or constituents who you promised to represent,” Parrish said. “There’s no good explanation here, because the majority of Virginians have already moved on. While the majority of members of this committee have been given orders to use procedural tools to kill this bipartisan legislation, you are only delaying the inevitable on an issue that has already been decided.

“Equality Virginia has always found a way to work with both Democrats and Republicans. But it is impossible to find common ground in the General Assembly when the leadership of the House is so afraid of a floor vote, they will move procedural mountains to satisfy the whim of a tiny faction.”

But Republicans seemed more swayed by arguments advanced by conservative groups such as the Family Foundation of Virginia, who sent Bill Janis, himself a former delegate, to advocate for defeating the bills. Janis argued that the bills are designed to address a problem that is not widespread, noting that there have been only 19 grievances filed alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation. He also argued that writing additional protected classes into law would only lead to frivolous litigation.

“This isn’t really about who gets hired and who gets fired, or who gets to buy or lease a house. This is about who may sue,” Janis said, taking issue with how the bills define sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Janis and representatives from the Virginia Catholic Conference and the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists also argued that the bills would violate the religious liberty of organizations, including private religiously-affiliated colleges, such as Liberty University or Regent University, that have objections to homosexuality or transgenderism. 

“I think at the end of the day, the debate that we’re having is about two great values that we have as Americans,” Del. Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) said following testimony from opponents and supporters of the bills. “There is a desire to treat everybody with dignity and respect. There’s also a desire to protect freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. So how do we balance that? 

“At the end of the day, we live in a society that recognizes that I may disagree with your religious beliefs…but you absolutely have that protection under the law to live your life to the dictates of your conscience,” Miyares added. “I would love to get to ‘yes’ on some of these. But until I see a proper exemption to give to some of these religious institutions, I have to vote no.”

Following the bills’ defeat, supporters in the chamber shouted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at Republican lawmakers, with some even reminding them that “2019 is around the corner,” a reference to the next time the House is up for re-election. 

National LGBTQ organizations also blasted the Republicans’ procedural maneuvers.

“2018 was, at long last, a renewed opportunity to move Virginia forward — an opportunity that has now been squandered. This deliberate move to kill multiple bills meant to improve the lives of LGBTQ people is at odds with the clear message Virginia voters sent elected officials in Richmond last year,” Masen Davis, the CEO of Freedom for All Americans, said in a statement.

“LGBTQ equality is an issue that transcends the partisan divide — as the Virginia Senate demonstrated in January when it approved two bills to LGBTQ people from discrimination in housing and public employment with strong bipartisan support. Today, Virginia lawmakers did a significant disservice not just to LGBTQ people, but to Virginians from all walks of life,” Davis concluded.

“Today’s action by Speaker Cox and other House Republican leadership is truly disgraceful and leaves thousands of LGBTQ Virginians at risk of discrimination,” Marty Rouse, the national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “Virginians want their representatives to send a message that the Commonwealth is open and welcome to all. It is far past time House lawmakers stop playing politics with the lives of LGBTQ people and their families.”

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