Va. Senate OKs ban on sexual orientation bias
Vote sends the bill to the House, where it faces a more hostile reception
Published Thursday, 18-Feb-2010 in issue 1156
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – A bill that would write into law the past two governors’ executive orders banning bias in the state work force based on sexual orientation won Senate passage Feb. 8.
Sen. Don McEachin’s bill advanced from the Democratic-controlled Senate on a nearly party-line vote of 23-17. One Republican, Sen. Fred Quayle, joined the Democratic majority.
The vote sends the bill to the House, where it faces a more hostile reception before a substantial GOP majority traditionally hostile to gay rights issues.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, said existing federal law is sufficient to protect state workers’ rights against discrimination. He said a state law risks bogging down agencies with lawsuits.
“It gives an avenue for filing lawsuits and grievances for perceived slights or for no perceived slight at all in the event that one has the ability to claim that they are being discriminated (against),” Obenshain said.
Obenshain also said the bill includes transgender issues in its definition of sexual orientation.
“Gender identity and expression is very different from sexual orientation,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, compared resistance to legislation protecting gays from workplace discrimination to Virginia’s official efforts in the 1950s to preserve racially segregated schools, known as “Massive Resistance.” Legislators who voted then to defy the Supreme Court order to integrate public classrooms soon regretted it, Saslaw said, and many got swept from office as public attitudes toward racism reversed.
“I would doubt that there are many people, if any, in this room who either don’t have friends who happen to be gay, or know people or have somebody in their family,” Saslaw said. “You vote no on this, then how in good conscience can you look them straight in the face and say to them, ‘Well, you know, that’s the way it is?””
“Everybody in this room knows that 20 years from now, you’re going to wish you’d voted otherwise,” Saslaw told the bill’s opponents. “Whether you or I like it or whatever, that’s the way America is moving.”
Democratic Govs. Timothy M. Kaine and his predecessor, Mark Warner, issued executive orders during their terms banning discrimination in state government hiring and workplace protection.
Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell has not reissued such an order but says Kaine’s is still in effect while he studies whether such orders are legal.
The legislature’s predominant gay rights advocacy group, Equality Virginia, hailed last Monday’s vote as the first time a bill protecting the rights of “gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender state employees” won passage in either chamber of the General Assembly.
“It is a day on which Virginia moves one step toward a state work force that is protected by the same nondiscrimination policies that already protect most of the private work force,” the organization’s CEO, Jon Blair, wrote in a memo to members.
The leading opposition group, the socially conservative Family Foundation, said in a statement from group President Victoria Cobb that the bill was not needed because “Virginia governors have a recent history of anti-discrimination policies.”
But it was those executive orders that then-attorney general McDonnell criticized in 2006, saying they were an unconstitutional intrusion into legislative prerogatives.
McDonnell spokesman J. Tucker Martin said the governor has taken no position on McEachin’s bill or a similar House measure by Del. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, the General Assembly’s only openly gay member.
“As attorney general, he argued that this is a separation of powers issue and that it would be a good idea if done by the legislature and not by executive fiat, so I take him at his word,” McEachin said.