Warner Protects Gays in Va. Hiring

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner
Lawmakers and activists vowed to overturn Gov. Mark Warner's order. (Bob Brown - AP)
By Michael D. Shear and Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 17, 2005

RICHMOND, Dec. 16 -- Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) on Friday quietly amended an executive order that for the first time explicitly bans Virginia state agencies from discriminating against gays in hiring and promotions.

The policy went into effect immediately, and a spokeswoman for Gov.-elect Timothy M. Kaine (D) said the incoming governor plans to continue the policy by signing the same executive order when he is inaugurated Jan. 14.

Warner spokeswoman Ellen Qualls said the change for the first time gives gay state employees the right to challenge hiring and firing decisions based on their sexual orientation. She said the governor was moved to act after he learned that 60 percent of state lawmakers have pledged the same protections in their own hiring.

"It was a powerful message to him that even what has been considered a traditionally conservative statehouse is ready for this change," Qualls said.

But as soon as the change became public, some lawmakers and activists pledged that they would work to rescind it. The General Assembly next year could pass legislation blocking the order. But if Kaine refused to sign it, it would take two-thirds of the lawmakers in both chambers to override his veto, setting up a lively debate in the upcoming legislative session.

Warner also added "sexual orientation" to nondiscrimination language in the $72 billion budget that he delivered to lawmakers Friday. Passage of the budget with that language would codify the change in state law, making it more permanent, Qualls said.

Warner's decision was hailed by gay rights activists, who said it was about time that Virginia adopted policies against discrimination that are common in state and local governments across the country and in many of the nation's businesses.

In 2002, the governor was criticized by gays and their supporters for declining to change the state's equal opportunity policy.

"It's bringing Virginia in line with the majority of other states that have these laws on the books," said Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia, the state's largest gay rights group. Maryland and the District have gone further, enacting laws that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in public and private hiring.

Mason added that her group has been pressing for this change in policy for much of Warner's term. "It's really in line with his long-term commitment to running Virginia like a well-run business."

But conservatives criticized Warner for both the substance of the change and the manner in which he did it, less than a month before the end of his four-year term and without a public announcement. Warner has formed a federal political action committee and is considering a run for president in 2008.

Chris Freund, communications director for the Family Foundation, said there is no evidence that discrimination against gays in state hiring exists. And he chastised Warner for slipping the change into state law. "Instead of publicly standing in front of the cameras and microphones, he sneaks it in during the last days of his administration," Freund said. "He has clearly chosen to leave a legacy that includes the very social issues he says he doesn't want to deal with."

At least one lawmaker said his colleagues on the House committee that will review the budget probably will remove the sexual orientation language from the budget.

"My guess is that we'll strike it out and that there will be a fairly lively discussion about all of this," said Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William). "If the advocates of that language want to advocate that view, then my guess is that they are going have to find a bill to do it."

Kaine spokeswoman Delacey Skinner said the governor-elect "believes that policies that include principles of tolerance and diversity are what make our commonwealth as strong as it is."

Qualls said Warner's decision to make the change was prompted by the number of lawmakers who have signed their own nondiscrimination pledges at the request of Equality Virginia. She also said eight of the 10 largest private companies in Virginia have similar policies, indicating that the state is ready for the change.

But Mason was cautious. She said it is not clear whether a major change in temperament has taken place in Virginia.

For example, she noted that lawmakers are expected, among other initiatives, to pass a resolution in the coming session calling for an amendment against same-sex marriages.

"It's still going to be a tough year," she said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company