Va. Senate to Weigh Gay Workers' Protections

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 6, 2006

RICHMOND -- Supporters and opponents of gay rights are about to clash again in the Virginia General Assembly, this time over a proposal to ban discrimination in government employment.

The Senate, which, like the House of Delegates, approved a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage, is scheduled this week to consider a discrimination ban that would explicitly protect gay workers.

Senate Bill 700 would make permanent safeguards in state employment issued in December by outgoing governor Mark R. Warner (D) and extend them to local governments and school boards.

The Democratic sponsors said they hope to find support from moderate Republicans, many of whom backed the constitutional amendment but might be eager to show they also oppose workplace discrimination. The amendment is poised to go before voters in November.

"I think people across the commonwealth need to know what their legislative body's position is on anti-discrimination policies," said Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), one of the bill's two chief sponsors. "If you don't want to see people be subject to discrimination, what's so wrong with saying we will not tolerate discrimination?"

Victoria Cobb, executive director of the Richmond-based Family Foundation, rejected the need for such a provision.

"This is another legislative attempt to force people to believe that homosexuality is as immutable as the color of a person's skin," she said. "Former homosexuals would state they made a choice to enter and to leave this lifestyle."

Every governor since the early 1970s has issued an executive order prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, religion and sex in hiring and promotions at state agencies. Warner amended that order to include sexual orientation, a policy Kaine renewed after taking office Jan. 14.

Warner also added "sexual orientation" to language on workplace protections in the $72 billion budget he submitted to the legislature in December. If passed, the budget would have the force of law for the two years covered by the document. Executive orders lapse every four years with the election of a new governor.

"I think the legislature needs to step up to the plate and put it in the statute and not just rely on governors' goodwill to do it by executive order," said Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Newport News), the bill's other chief sponsor.

Other lawmakers and activists have vowed to fight the effort, hoping to strip the budget of Warner's new language and to block legislation on the matter.

"Sexual orientation is a broad term," said Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Fredericksburg), who has proposed amending the budget. "There are eight different sexual orientations, including pedophilia and bestiality. I think we'd be opening up Pandora's box and allowing judges to interpret what that means."

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