Public colleges and universities in Virginia were considering their options this week after state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli declared their policies barring discrimination against gays illegal.
Many student and LGBT groups mobilized against Cuccinelli’s letter March 4 to 40 school presidents, which says the institutions cannot treat sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as protected classes in non-discrimination policies. But the schools largely reserved comment.
Only one major institution, Virginia Commonwealth University, released before DC Agenda deadline any official statement, but it said only that students, faculty and staff would be consulted.
Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) seemed to offer the schools a small reprieve earlier this week. A spokesperson affirmed the governor’s view that only the General Assembly can extend anti-discrimination protections to a new class, a view consistent with Cuccinelli’s advice.
But the spokesperson, Tucker Martin, noted executive branch appointments to school boards would not focus on this issue.
“The governor will appoint board members based solely on their ability and on their strong commitment to educational excellence in Virginia. The governor expects that no Virginia college or university, or any other state agency, will engage in discrimination of any kind.”
Equality Virginia CEO Jon Blair called on McDonnell to prove his stance against discrimination by asking the General Assembly to send him a bill adding sexual orientation to the state’s policy.
“Attorney General Cuccinelli’s letter was Gov. McDonnell’s opportunity to prove whether he was the Robert McDonnell who said through his entire campaign that he opposed discrimination or he was the Robert McDonnell who wrote the thesis from 20 years ago,” Blair said, referring to past writings where the governor opposed gay rights. “I think if he fails to act on this, he’s proven exactly which one he is.”
On Tuesday, the state House voted down a motion to force a vote on the bill that would have added sexual orientation to the state’s non-discrimination laws. The measure failed 55-42. The bill previously passed the state Senate, but did not make it out of subcommittee in the House.
One university’s diversity coordinator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some schools would defy the request if they could, but they would face significant political pressure to comply with the current administration.
Campus groups, meanwhile, have begun campaigns asking school administrators to ignore Cuccinelli’s directive. University of Virginia’s Queer & Allied Activism group began by uploading to Facebook photos of the attorney general that were doctored to poke fun at him.
Inspired by the grammatically incorrect lolcatz pictures, some photos of Cuccinelli included the words “In ur AG office … hatin’ on ur gays” and “Gays? We don’t have them in my state.”
One group on Facebook that stood against Cuccinelli’s letter, “We Don’t Want Discrimination in Our State Universities and Colleges,” gathered more than 4,000 members within days.
Seth Kaye, a second year engineering student at UVA and member coordinator of Queer & Allied Activism, said he felt hurt by the attorney general’s attack and wanted to know why anyone thought it was acceptable to go after LGBT people.
“I don’t understand how that can pass a rational basis test,” Kaye said. “It seems totally biased.”
UVA was making significant improvements toward offering services to LGBT students, Kaye said, including starting a queer studies minor program and a new gay fraternity.
“I hope the universities all come together and say we’re not going to follow this order,” he said. “Hopefully, if the state sues them, it turns out in our favor and maybe [we] even get sexual orientation as a protected class.”
With most students away from campus on spring break, Kaye said campaigning on the issue has been largely performed online, with a particular focus on Facebook and e-mail. He wondered if the letter’s timing was deliberate to avoid a more robust student backlash.
For his part, Cuccinelli took to local airwaves this week to defend his advice to schools. He said his letter was consistent with opinions of the state’s previous five attorneys general, which included three Democrats.
But on his Twitter profile, Cuccinelli was less cautious: “Still much sound and fury about simply stating what the law is now and has been pretty much forever in Virginia … but on a touchy subject.”
Fears that the Republican would use his office to advance a socially conservative agenda, rather than merely advise on law, were expressed as early as his campaign launch, including from vocal members of the Log Cabin Republicans of Virginia.
“Just as we feared, Mr. Cuccinelli is becoming an embarrassment to the entire state with his extreme views on this issue,” said David Lampo, vice president of the Log Cabin Republican Club of Virginia.
“We call on Virginia’s state colleges and universities to resist this outrageous demand and to continue their policies of hiring and firing on the basis of merit rather than sexual orientation, and we call on Gov. McDonnell to end this legal limbo for gay and lesbian state employees by supporting a bill to outlaw employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”