A bill to reinstate sexual orientation in Virginia’s public employment non-discrimination policy passed the state Senate last week — marking what some LGBT activists fear could be their only success this year.
Virginia Partisans President Terry Mansberger said a near total shut-out by the minority Republican senators on Senate Bill 66 means it’s unlikely to see a vote in the Republican-controlled House. And he noted that any other LGBT-inclusive bill could meet the same fate.
“When you put forward things like this that protect people from discrimination, most people agree that’s wrong,” he said. “But the teabaggers who’ve taken over the Republican Party think any legislation that helps gays and lesbians is bad.”
Sen. Frederick Quayle (R-Suffolk) was the sole GOP member to back the bill that appeared to square with Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s stance that expanding the policy was a matter for the legislature.
Newly elected Sen. Dave Marsden (D-Burke), who defeated anti-gay Republican Steve Hunt by 327 votes in the Fairfax special election, was among the 7-6 majority who earlier endorsed the bill in subcommittee.
Mansberger said the narrow victory in subcommittee showed the importance of supporting pro-gay candidates like Marsden, even if the bill itself doesn’t become law this year.
Aside from the public employment non-discrimination push, several bills advancing LGBT rights have been introduced at the Virginia General Assembly, which gave community activists a tangible goal to focus on at Equality Virginia’s lobby day earlier this month.
Dels. Tom Rust (R-Hendon) and Adam Ebbin (D-Arlington) introduced House Bill 352 to allow employers to extend life insurance benefits to workers’ domestic partners. Ebbin also introduced a House version of the inclusive public employment non-discrimination policy.
House Bill 1142 from Del. Jim Scott (D-Merrifield) would add sexual orientation to the state’s hate crimes law. It also would add the right for hate crime victims to bring civil action for damages and allow Internet providers to restrict access to anti-gay hate material.
But several bills introduced this session would cut same-sex partners out of typical next-of-kin roles, such as House Bill 650 introduced by Del. Ward Armstrong (D-Martinsville), which excludes domestic partners in disputes over funeral arrangements. And Del. Chris Peace (R-Mechanicsville) introduced House Bill 719, which allows spouses and dependents to petition for power of attorney, but not domestic partners.
Despite this year’s robust legislative agenda, state LGBT activists and supporters are tackling an additional task: working toward a vote to overturn the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
A proposal to repeal the 2005 constitutional amendment has been introduced into the state’s House by Del. David Englin (D-Alexandria). It does not replace the amendment text with language enacting same-sex marriage; it simply removes the current restrictions that preclude the legislature from recognizing same-sex relationships.
Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Equality Virginia’s chief counsel and legislative lobbyist, said laying the groundwork for repealing the amendment through hearts-and-minds campaigning is already underway and will continue until a majority of lawmakers back the measure.
If enough legislators vote for the measure before the next election, the earliest the proposed change could go before voters would be 2012, as it has to pass two consecutive sessions. However, Guthrie Gastañaga said she’d be surprised to see the issue on the ballot again before 2016.
Nonetheless, Freedom to Marry Executive Director Evan Wolfson said Virginia’s pro-LGBT forces could work toward victory by following the path activists are blazing in Oregon.
“Once that constitutional amendment passed in 2004, Basic Rights Oregon, the Equality Virginia counterpart, moved to begin laying the foundation to undo that discrimination,” Wolfson said. “At first, they secured a statewide non-discrimination law as well as a partnership law, so even with the passage of the anti-gay amendment, Oregon moved on to win more protections than we had there before the amendment.
“It’s now embarking on the vigorous public education and outreach effort, asking people in Oregon to have conversations with their neighbors and to get involved in raising their voices and creating the climate to overturning the amendment, possibly in 2012.”
Wolfson said there’s no substitute in this process for local engagement, with conversations beginning among neighbors and leading toward a reshaped national dialogue.
“None of us can rely on the courts,” he said. “We have to get out there. Even though it may not immediately topple the amendment, and though it may not immediately lead to marriage in Virginia, it helps create the climate nationwide.”
But Isaac Wood, assistant communications director at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said it could be too soon for LGBT Virginians to expect change.
“With a heavily Republican and very conservative House of Delegates and a conservative governor, it is unlikely that the LGBT lobby will make much headway in Richmond this year or in the near future,” he said.
“Politics is cyclical and Virginia is a battleground state, so it is possible the ideological makeup of the legislature could change significantly over the next five years. While it is unlikely that Democrats could retake the House of Delegates in 2011, they can bolster their razor-thin majority in the state Senate and get within striking distance to retake the House in the 2013 elections. In politics, as in sports, there is always next year.”