Fighting Bias in Virginia
On gay rights, both candidates' views have evolved -- Mr. Deeds's more convincingly than Mr. McDonnell's.

Friday, September 18, 2009

ROBERT F. McDonnell, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, says his erstwhile view that homosexuality is, like drug abuse, an evil that "government must restrain, punish, and deter" has changed since he wrote that in his now-notorious dissertation 20 years ago. State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate, has referred to himself as a "work in progress" on issues pertaining to sexual orientation, having campaigned against the state's constitutional amendment banning gay marriage -- but only after he voted to put it on the ballot.

Both men profess to have evolved when it comes to issues regarding sexual orientation, as many Americans have. That implies at least some recognition by both candidates that society's treatment of gay people is a critical civil rights question -- maybe the critical one of this era.

However, a closer examination of their records suggests that Mr. Deeds's evolution is the more comprehensive. By contrast, Mr. McDonnell's shift, if there is a shift at all, has been modest and relatively recent. Although he says he opposes bias on grounds of sexual orientation, he will not commit to backing legislation that would expand the state's nondiscrimination policy to cover gay individuals. As a lawmaker representing Virginia Beach for 14 years, Mr. McDonnell consistently opposed legislation backed by the gay community. He voted against a bill, strongly supported by business groups, to let employers offer benefits to their employees' unmarried partners, gay or straight. He voted to screen prospective parents for "voluntary homosexual activity" before they could adopt a child. He voted for the Marriage Affirmation Act, which prohibits Virginia law from recognizing out-of-state civil unions. He voted to amend Virginia's constitution to prohibit civil unions as well as same-sex marriages.

As attorney general in 2006, Mr. McDonnell rendered an opinion saying Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) had acted unconstitutionally by issuing an executive order expanding Virginia's nondiscrimination policy to ban bias against gays in state hiring and employment; that power, he said, was the legislature's, not the executive's. On similar grounds, he argued that local governments could not include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policies. Several jurisdictions, including Alexandria, Charlottesville and Williamsburg, ignored him.

In the past few years, Mr. McDonnell has modified his stance in a few instances. Having previously backed the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, in 2006 he issued an opinion stating that the amendment would not interfere with contracts, wills, medical directives and other agreements, and that it would not affect Virginia's domestic violence laws. That allowed police to handle domestic violence calls for gay couples just as they are handled for straight couples. The following year, he issued an opinion giving the green light to the University of Virginia to extend gym membership privileges to the partners and roommates of unmarried students and employees -- including same-sex couples.

Mr. Deeds's record, confined to his votes in the state Senate, is more limited. However, his voting history has been generally more favorable to gay rights, including backing bills in recent years to allow local governments to extend health coverage to partners of their gay employees. In 2005, he supported the bill, which Mr. McDonnell opposed, to let businesses grant benefits to employees' unmarried partners, gay and straight. And following Mr. McDonnell's opinion, as attorney general, opposing Mr. Kaine's nondiscrimination policy, Mr. Deeds was a patron of legislation to ban bias based on sexual orientation in state employment.

That bill failed but remains a top priority of gay rights groups that reasonably seek to codify Mr. Kaine's nondiscrimination policy. Their other legislative priority -- allowing businesses to offer benefits to workers' gay and straight partners -- is equally sensible. Both would stand a better chance of enactment with Mr. Deeds in the governor's office.

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