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Virginia attorney general to colleges: End gay protections

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II says that only the General Assembly can extend legal protections.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II says that only the General Assembly can extend legal protections. (Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
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Cuccinelli's predecessor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), who became governor in January, also held that only the General Assembly could name new classes for legal protections. But he never specifically targeted university policies that seemingly contradicted his position. And in a 2006 letter to Longwood University, his office declined to conclusively tell the Farmville school that it could not include sexual orientation in its policy.

Still, a McDonnell spokesman said Friday that the governor thinks Cuccinelli's stand is consistent with past practice. He said, however, that McDonnell would not discriminate at universities or elsewhere.

"The legal analysis contained in the letter concerning the General Assembly's sole responsibility for setting state employment policy is consistent with all prior opinions from the Office of the Attorney General over the last 25 years on the subject," McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said in a statement. "The Governor expects that no Virginia college or university, or any other state agency, will engage in discrimination of any kind."

In the letter, Cuccinelli wrote that he was issuing the opinion to dispel any confusion about his office's position. He said local governments have received similar advice from past attorneys general. Allowing universities to write policies without permission from the General Assembly would invite litigation, he wrote.

According to the letter, the General Assembly has rejected bills to add the words "sexual orientation" to nondiscrimination statutes 25 times since 1997.

Cuccinelli declined to comment on the letter, which was obtained by The Washington Post.

The former Fairfax County senator has signaled that he will be an activist attorney general. This month, he sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency, challenging its ruling that greenhouse gases pose a public health risk by contributing to global warming.

He also advised McDonnell to halt a process begun by former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) in December that could have resulted in Virginia allowing health benefits for the partners of gay state employees, including at colleges and universities.

"I don't think it's going to surprise anyone that Attorney General Cuccinelli is not going to be a quiet attorney general," said Christopher Freund, a spokesman for the Family Foundation, which has long contended that legal protections based on sexual orientation are unnecessary.

Freund applauded Cuccinelli for the consistency of his advice.

"I find it hard to believe that this would be the final straw in whether or not someone's going to come to Virginia's universities," he said. "They are some of the best universities in the country. I think they can stand on their own without this policy."

But others criticized the move, including students and Democratic lawmakers. "It's going to be a mess -- there's no doubt about that," said Carl Pucci, 21, president of Old Dominion University's student body. "I think you're going to see the whole gamut, from angry letters to protests."

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said in a statement that Cuccinelli's advice would "damage the Commonwealth's reputation for academic excellence and diversity."

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