RICHMOND, Va.–Marriage rights for same-sex couples overshadowed the Virginia General Assembly’s 2014 regular session that ended on March 8.
Attorney General Mark Herring in January announced he would not defend Virginia’s constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. State Dels. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William County) and Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah County) subsequently introduced a bill that would have allowed any state lawmaker to defend a law if the governor and attorney general decline to do so.
The Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates last month overwhelmingly approved the measure, but the state Senate Rules Committee on Feb. 24 struck it down by a 12-4 margin. Gov. Terry McAuliffe also denied a request from Marshall, Gilbert and 28 other legislators to appoint a special counsel to defend the marriage amendment.
State Del. Mark Cole (R-Fredericksburg), chair of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, announced at the start of the 2014 General Assembly it would not consider proposed resolutions that sought to repeal the marriage amendment until next year. State Del. Joseph Yost (R-Giles County) a few weeks later became the first Republican state lawmaker to back marriage rights for same-sex couples.
“As far as same-sex marriage goes, it does not bother me,” Yost told the Washington Blade during an exclusive interview at an Equality Virginia reception in downtown Richmond on Jan. 29 that coincided with the group’s annual Lobby Day. “I don’t think the government should be involved in marriage period — straight or gay. I feel like we have bigger things to worry about.”
U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen on Feb. 13 struck down the gay nuptials ban in a case that two same-sex couples from Norfolk and Chesterfield brought against it. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond earlier this week granted a motion from Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union – which filed a separate lawsuit against the marriage amendment last August on behalf of two lesbian couples from the Shenandoah Valley – to join the case for which oral arguments are tentatively scheduled to begin on May 12.
“She clearly had a view coming in,” former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli told Bruce DePuyt of News Channel 8 during an interview after Allen issued her decision, referring to the quote from Mildred Loving on the 40th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the commonwealth’s interracial marriage ban she used to open it. “We expect judges to look at these things more objectively.”
Lieutenant Gov. Ralph Northam, who took office in January alongside McAuliffe and Herring, is among those who applauded Allen’s ruling.
“We shouldn’t as a government be telling people who they should and shouldn’t love,” Northam told the Blade during a celebration of Allen’s decision that took place at a gay-owned furniture store in Norfolk on Feb. 14. “In 2014 one should be able to love and marry who they want.”
The 2014 General Assembly otherwise proved a mixed bag for Virginia LGBT rights advocates on a range of issues that include adding sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to existing anti-discrimination laws.
McAuliffe is expected to sign into law a bill the House approved last week by a 100-vote margin that seeks to repeal Virginia’s sodomy law. An identical measure passed unanimously last month in the state Senate.
The Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee in January struck down a measure introduced by state Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax Country) that would have extended second-parent adoption rights to gays and lesbians.
State Del. Joseph Yost (R-Giles County) introduced a similar measure in the Virginia House of Delegates that two Republicans – state Dels. Gordon Helsel (R-Poquoson) and Tom Rust (R-Fairfax County) – co-sponsored. It died in committee last month.
The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee in January also struck down a bill state Sens. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico County) and Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) introduced that would have banned discrimination against LGBT state employees. The first executive order that McAuliffe signed upon taking office on Jan. 11 was a ban on discrimination against state employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
State Dels. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) and Ron Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach) introduced bills that sought to ban anti-LGBT employment discrimination in the commonwealth. Both measures died last month in committee.
“I know how the system works up here and I know it was a tough argument, but I think because I’m a Republican carrying it made a statement,” Villanueva told the Blade during a Jan. 28 interview in his Richmond office. “[I hope to] help persuade that God loves all of us and in the Constitution its written life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and all of us should be enjoying the same liberties.”
A bill state Del. Patrick Hope introduced that sought to ban so-called “ex-gay” conversion therapy to minors in Virginia died last month in a House subcommittee.
“While we fell short of achieving all of our goals, this session has shown that a growing number of legislators are willing to stand on the right side of history in support of equality and fairness,” said Equality Virginia Executive Director James Parrish. “We will take the momentum we have gained this session to continue our work towards making Virginia a place that is fair and welcoming for all.”
McAuliffe is expected to call for a special legislative session later this month to debate a state budget and his proposed expansion of the commonwealth’s Medicaid program.