Metro Weekly

Virginia House bill would allow localities to pass their own LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws

Measure would circumvent legal restrictions that have been used to thwart attempts to pass pro-LGBTQ laws

Danica Roem – Photo by Julian Vankim

A Virginia House committee has green-lighted a bill that allows localities within the commonwealth to pass their own LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances without having to seek approval from the General Assembly.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas), passed the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns by a bipartisan vote of 17-1. Ten Democrats and seven Republicans voted to move the bill out of committee, with Del. Charles Poindexter (R-Glade Hill) voting against the measure. Three other Democrats and one Republican did not vote.

LGBTQ advocates have long advocated for a measure like Roem’s, noting that Virginia’s status as a “Dillon’s Rule” state prevents localities from adding protected classes to nondiscrimination ordinances that go beyond those classes enumerated in Virginia’s human rights law.

Past attorneys general, Republican and Democrat alike, as well as current Attorney General Mark Herring (D), have opined that local county boards and commissions do not have the right to pass LGBTQ-inclusive ordinances unless and until the General Assembly adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the commonwealth’s Human Rights Act.

Due to that interpretation, many localities were cowed into submission, lest they risk a legal challenge to their laws. In the 1990s, after the city of Alexandria added sexual orientation to its local nondiscrimination ordinance, there was concern that Richmond would take retaliatory action against the city, but nothing ever happened. Instead, it was simply understood that the ordinance’s protections for sexual orientation were legally unenforceable.

However, Herring has previously released a legal opinion finding that school boards may pass their own policies extending anti-harassment and nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ students, teachers, and school employees without having to seek General Assembly approval.

In that opinion, Herring cited a provision within an educational reform bill that gave significant leeway to local boards of education to craft and enforce their own administrative policies without interference from Richmond.

Roem’s bill, if enacted by both chambers and signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam, would essentially make Herring’s opinion moot, as it would explicitly allow localities to pass pro-LGBTQ protections into law, meaning that county boards, city councils, and boards of education would be able to do so at their leisure, without fear of reprisal from Richmond. 

The bill could also be bolstered by future passage of the Virginia Values Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity into the Human Rights Act.

“I think it’s really a new day in Virginia, where an inclusive nondiscrimination bill that has [protections for] sexual orientation and gender identity can not only pass, but pass with bipartisan support,” Roem told Metro Weekly in an interview.

“This bill simply allows localities to include sexual orientation and gender identity, as opposed to being prescriptive, where it requires them to do that,” added Roem.

She said that she introduced the bill at the request of several LGBTQ constituents, as well as Prince William County Supervisor Kenny Boddye (D-Occoquan), who indicated to Roem that such a bill would make it easier for the county to pass LGBTQ protections into local law, as well as enforce the county school board’s existing LGBTQ equal opportunity policy.

“We have really fundamentally changed what it means to welcome LGBTQ Virginians in our commonwealth with the actions we’ve taken on both sides of the Capitol over the past few weeks,” Roem said, referring to several pro-LGBTQ measures that have either passed the House or Senate, or are expected to receive votes in the coming days. “I think that should tell you where the state of equality is headed in the Virginia legislature.

“After the session adjourns, and Gov. Northam starts signing bills, we will have had more equality bills signed into law in one year than the previous 401 years of the Virginia General Assembly combined” she added. “I think that’s incredible.”

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