Metro Weekly

Virginia General Assembly to take up LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill

"Virginia Values Act" would permanently enshrine legal protections for the LGBTQ community into law

Zakia McKensey, the founder of Nationz Foundation, speaks at a press conference for the Virginia Values Coalition – Photo: Equality Virginia

After decades of failed attempts to prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ Virginians, equality advocates are confident that a new bill that includes protections for people who have been treated unfairly because of their sexual orientation or gender identity will pass.

SB 868, also known as the Virginia Values Act, pulls together a number of standalone bills introduced by other Democratic lawmakers to modernize Virginia’s human rights laws.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), would prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people — as well as other groups not currently covered by the law, such as veterans or pregnant individuals — in public employment (including state government and school board employees), housing and credit.

Because Virginia is one of only five states in the country that currently lacks protections in public accommodations for any protected class, including race and religion, the law prohibits discrimination against a number of enumerated groups in public accommodations, which are spaces that open themselves up to the public, such as hospitals, doctor’s offices, movie theaters, restaurants, hotels, and department stores.

The bill would also prohibit discrimination by private employers with six or more employees, but contains an exemption for private clubs or places of accommodation owned or operated by a closely-held religious corporation, association or society that is selective in its membership, or does not rent out its facilities to the larger public.

“This legislation creates a critical update to Virginia law and sends a clear message that the Commonwealth is a safe and welcoming place for all people,” James Parrish, the director of the Virginia Values Coalition, the lead group pushing for passage of the bill, said in a statement. “It is imperative lawmakers pass the Virginia Values Act in the General Assembly.”

Gov. Ralph Northam (D), as well as his predecessors Sen. Mark Warner, Sen. Tim Kaine, and Terry McAuliffe, previously issued executive orders prohibiting discrimination in state employment.

But such orders can be rescinded — and were, from 2010 to 2014, under former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) — if those protections are not passed and enshrined in the Code of Virginia.

Additionally, there have never been any legal protections for LGBTQ people in any other facet of life, due to bills being killed by Republican lawmakers in past legislative sessions, coupled with the fact that “Dillon’s Rule” prohibits more progressive localities from passing their own, more inclusive nondiscrimination laws without approval of the General Assembly. (A separate bill has been introduced by Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas) that would allow localities to add sexual orientation and gender identity to their local human rights ordinances.)

Because Northam, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax Station) and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Springfield) have all expressed support for a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill, the measure is expected to be approved by both chambers and sent to Northam’s desk for his signature into law.

Related: Virginia’s incoming House Speaker promises to pass LGBTQ protections in 2020

LGBTQ activists expressed optimism about the upcoming session, particularly the Human Rights Campaign, which made a six-figure investment in the 2019 elections to help ensure Democrats would retake both chambers of the General Assembly, thus ensuring that LGBTQ-related measures would not be killed in committee or denied a floor vote.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn – Photo: Equality Virginia

“For years, LGBTQ people living in Virginia have faced discrimination,” HRC President Alphonso David said in a statement. “The Virginia Values Act will not only provide critical protections for LGBTQ Virginians, but expand existing civil rights laws to provide recourse for discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, and veteran status. Virginia voters sent pro-equality majorities to Richmond to make this change, and we look forward to working with the House of Delegates and the Senate to pass the Virginia Values Act into law.”

Freedom for All Americans and the National Center for Transgender Equality have also joined the Virginia Values Coalition and are urging lawmakers to pass the nondiscrimination bill as soon as possible.

“Nondiscrimination protections are long overdue for Virginia’s LGBTQ community,” Vee Lamneck the executive director of Equality Virginia. “The Virginia Values Act will ensure LGBTQ people are treated fairly and equitably by the laws of the state and have the opportunity to earn a living, access housing and healthcare, and participate fully in society.”

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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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