Virginia’s 2014 Session Setbacks

by John Riley
Sunday Mar 16, 2014
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As Virginia’s 2014 legislative session comes to close, activists are taking stock. Equality Virginia, the commonwealth’s major LGBT-rights organization, came into this year’s legislative session with optimism, particularly after the swearing-in of the state’s top officeholders: Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, all of whom were vocal in their support of LGBT rights when elected last fall. But two vacant state Senate seats, affecting the makeup of Senate committees, and a Republican-dominated House of Delegates conspired to defeat many of the organization’s top initiatives.

Equality Virginia’s main priority had been the passage of an employment-nondiscrimination bill to protect LGBT workers. But the Senate version of the bill, SB 248, was defeated after the committee taking up the bill in the upper chamber deadlocked. Had Democrats won two Senate special elections sooner, they would have controlled the chamber and given out new committee assignments that likely would have allowed the bill to pass out of committee and onto the full Senate.

A similar bill, co-introduced by Delegates Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church, Fairfax Co.) and Ron Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach, Chesapeake), would have amended Virginia’s Human Rights Act to provide protections for public employees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. While that bill was tabled in the corresponding House committee, Equality Virginia did see some progress underlying the fact that a handful of House Republicans had either co-patroned or expressed support for such measures.

’’There is no excuse for the Commonwealth of Virginia to treat lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees differently from any other employee,’’ James Parrish, the executive director of Equality Virginia, said in a statement. ’’It is promising to see lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agree that LGBT state employees should not live in fear of being fired simply because of who they are.’’

Other bills that failed to gain traction in either chamber included measures to prohibit discrimination in housing, to ban ’’gay conversion’’ therapy for minors, and to allow second-parent adoption.

The Senate version of the adoption bill deadlocked on a 6-6 vote, and the House bill was tabled in committee, despite being introduced by a Republican, Del. Joseph Yost (R-Radford, Giles, Pulaski, Montgomery counties) and getting two additional Republicans delegates, Tom Rust (Fairfax, Loudoun counties) and Gordon Helsel (Hampton, Poquoson, York Co.), to sign on as co-patrons.

’’Second-parent adoption is about Virginia’s children,’’ Parrish said in a statement. ’’Until Virginia gains the freedom to marry, there are thousands of children, being raised by gay and lesbian couples, who would gain numerous protections if second-parent adoption were possible. Protecting our children should be a no-brainer.’’

Equality Virginia had expressed hope that a bill allowing people to add an additional adult, such as a partner or spouse, to their insurance, would pass the House, particularly after it overwhelmingly passed the Senate. But that bill, too, was tabled before it could receive a floor vote.

There is some hope for the 2015 session, as all bills that were related to repealing Virginia’s Marshall-Newman Amendment - the state’s constitutional ban on any recognition of same-sex couples - were continued to next year, giving proponents of marriage equality more time to regroup and rally. With a fully seated Senate, now controlled by Democrats, LGBT-rights supporters believe they will be able to pass legislation through the proper committee channels and onto the floor, where Democrats - and a few Republicans - have the numbers to pass measures such as the nondiscrimination bill. The only bill that would likely be doomed from the outset in the upper chamber would be the second-parent-adoption bill, which must go through the Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services, which Democrats stacked with Republicans to offset heavily Democratic membership on other committees. The House, however, would still pose the biggest obstacle to any LGBT-related legislation gaining traction.

’’While we fell short of achieving 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,’’ Parrish said. ’’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.’’

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