Metro Weekly

Virginia House Committee to hear pro-LGBTQ housing and employment bills this afternoon

Bills head to a hostile Rules Committee, even as polls show widespread support for LGBTQ protections

Virginia State Capitol — Photo: Skip Plitt/Wikimedia Commons.

Four pro-LGBTQ bills have been placed on the docket of the Virginia House of Delegates’ Rules Committee for Monday, Jan. 28 at 4 p.m., prompting equality advocates to call on Republican lawmakers to support them.

Two of the bills in question, one from Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler (D-Virginia Beach), and another from Del. Roxann Robinson (R-Chesterfield), would amend Virginia’s Fair Housing law to include protections that would prohibit renters and realtors from discriminating against tenants or buyers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Also being considered is a bill from Del. John Bell (D-Sterling) to prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination in public employment, and a bill from Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) that has been nicknamed the “LGBTQ omnibus” bill — which would prohibits discrimination in employment (both public and private), housing, banking, insurance, public contracting, apprenticeship programs, and places of public accommodation.

The Rules Committee is split 11-6 in favor of Republicans, even though the party only holds a two-seat advantage in the chamber. All six Democrats have pro-LGBTQ voting records.

As such, Democrats would have to pick up three Republican votes just to ensure the measures can continue to proceed (by being assigned to the appropriate committee and approved or rejected through regular order).

Unfortunately, House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), an opponent of LGBTQ rights, chairs the Rules Committee, and has stacked it with some of his most loyal lieutenants, including Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Woodstock), the Republican Majority Leader, who previously sponsored a “religious freedom” bill that would have allowed businesses and government officials to discriminate against LGBTQ people by using their personal religious beliefs as justification.

The list of other Republicans who sit on the Rules Committee reads like a “Who’s Who” of GOP House leadership, including Appropriations Committee Chairman Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), Agriculture Committee Chairman Danny Marshall (R-Danville), Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Terry Kilgore (R-Gate City), Education Committee Chairman Steven Landes (R-Weyers Cave), Finance Committee Chairman Lee Ware (R-Powhatan), and Health, Welfare & Institutions Committee Chairman Bobby Orrock (R-Thornburg), as well as Delegates Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach), Riley Ingram (R-Hopewell), and Terry Austin (R-Buchanan).

Historically, Ware has been friendly, or at least receptive, to the idea of nondiscrimination, having previously signed on as a co-patron of a fair employment bill during the 2013 session. But almost all of the others have been silent on LGBTQ rights.

Adding to the sense of intrigue this year is what role a recent court-ordered redistricting will play in an election year. Under the new court-drawn maps, Democrats are favored to win a majority of House seats, and several Rules Committee members find themselves in significantly more Democratic districts, according to statistics compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project. For instance, Cox’s district shifts 32 points more Democratic under the new maps, while Jones’ district shifts 27 points more Democratic, and Knight’s district shifts 16 points more Democratic. Ingram’s district shifts slightly Democratic, but his original district was marginally Republican at best.

Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox – Photo: Facebook.

All of this comes at a time when recent polling has shown that a majority of Republicans in Virginia — as well as a majority of Virginians overall — support bills that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. Majorities in all six major geographic regions of the commonwealth support protections in employment, and majorities in 5 of the 6 regions support housing protections. (Of the committee members, only Kilgore hails from Southwest Virginia, where a plurality, but not a majority, support amending the commonwealth’s fair housing law.)

The vote also comes just days after LGBTQ rights organization Equality Virginia, the Human Rights Campaign, and Freedom for All Americans announced plans to hold rallies every day this week calling on General Assembly leaders to allow votes of conscience on bills to extend nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ Virginians.

“Virginia voters understand that equality is not a Republican or Democratic value — it’s a Virginia value,” Equality Virginia Executive Director James Parrish said in a statement. “It’s time for the House of Delegates to finally take up and pass these bills. It’s not controversial, it’s common sense.”

James Parrish of Equality Virginia Photo by Todd Franson

James Parrish of Equality Virginia
Photo by Todd Franson

As the sponsor of one of the bills up for consideration, Robinson, a five-term lawmaker from the Richmond suburbs, penned an op-ed that was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch outlining her decision to push the bill.

“We are not breaking new ground. For the past four legislative sessions, most recently last week, my Republican colleagues in the state Senate have passed legislation to prohibit such discrimination in both housing and public employment,” she notes. “I am proud to carry the fair housing bill in the House.”

Citing the aforementioned polls, Robinson writes that they “reaffirm what I already knew: Republicans believe that all Virginia citizens should have an equal shot at the American dream.”

“Our party should put these beliefs into action now by embracing and championing nondiscrimination measures — not just because they’re a genuine reflection of our values, but because it is time to move our commonwealth forward, she writes. “Throughout my time in public office, I have been a strong defender of our basic rights and freedoms, and I am adamant that these rights and freedoms should be applied equally to all of Virginia’s citizens. During this 2019 General Assembly session, I urge my colleagues to ensure that our LGBT family members, friends, and neighbors have the same opportunity to achieve and live the American Dream, free from discrimination.”

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

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