Virginia is for lovers

Lawmakers in the Virginia House of Delegates should approve employment-discrimination protections for LGBTQ state workers

The Virginia Senate Friday voted 24-16 to approve a bill protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer state employees from workplace discrimination. Four Republicans and all the chamber’s Democrats voted in favor. The legislation now faces an uphill battle as it moves to the Virginia House of Delegates.

LGBTQ employees in Virginia have looked to the General Assembly for assistance before, but without success. Past proposals protecting LGBTQ employees have faltered after leaving the lower chamber. A bill prohibiting state agencies from discriminating against gays and lesbians in employment decisions, for example, passed the Virginia Senate in February 2010. The legislation was the first of its kind in Virginia. It stalled and died in the House of Delegates a month later.

In recent years the path to protections has been through Virginia’s executive branch, not the legislature. In December 2005 Democratic governor Mark Warner amended an executive order to explicitly bar state agencies from discriminating against gays and lesbians in hiring and promotions. When Warner issued his executive order he had less than a month in his gubernatorial term. But his successor Tim Kaine, also a Democrat, followed suit by signing the same executive order on Jan. 14, 2006. It was one of his first acts as governor.

Current Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell walked back legal protections in favor of de facto ones. In February 2010 — days before the Virginia Senate approved its ill-fated bill protecting LGBTQ state employees — the Republican governor signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination on the basis of multiple categories, including race, sex, color, national origin and religion. Sexual orientation was not one of them. The next month Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli penned letters to Virginia’s public colleges and universities telling them they lacked the legal authority to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians. Feeling heat on the issue, McDonnell issued an executive directive — a formal request that lacks the weight of law — warning state employers they would face reprimands for discriminating against gays and lesbians.

Custom may exert more power than law, but LGBTQ state employees need codified workplace protections. Cuccinelli may be our governor come November. Given his dismal gay-rights record, words and good intentions are not enough. State employees require protections that carry legal force. Custom can change, but law endures until amended. Protections passed by the legislature would be difficult for Cuccinelli or another executive to override.

Senate Bill 701, the bill currently under consideration, does not do anything radically new. The legislation merely formalizes the antidiscrimination practices state agencies currently abide by when hiring, firing and promoting employees.

If attitudes in state government with respect to LGBTQ employees remain relatively tolerant, the bill simply enshrines current policies into Virginia law. No harm done.

But if attitudes toward LGBTQ employees change wildly — as they might under a Cuccinelli administration — the bill grants public workers necessary protections. The legislation ensures that current state employment practices cannot be discarded on a whim.

Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C. have laws banning workplace discrimination related to sexual orientation. Virginia should join the ranks. Reasons for such laws are simple: Employers, public or private, should want the most qualified workers they can find. And LGBTQ workers want some legal assurance that they won’t lose their jobs because of their orientation. Indeed, such a bill might entice more qualified workers to the Commonwealth. Race, religion, sex, national origin, disability — state law protects these categories and more from workplace discrimination. Sexual orientation is the last major identity marker left unguarded.

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who helped introduce the legislation that passed Friday, is Virginia’s first openly gay state senator. Though his bill may flounder when it enters the Commonwealth’s more conservative chamber, we nonetheless commend his efforts to shield Virginia’s more vulnerable employees. The House of Delegates should move to codify nondiscrimination by voting yes on Ebbin’s bill.

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