Students irate at Cuccinelli over gay-rights policies

By Daniel de Vise and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Campus activists across Virginia put spring break on hold Monday to mobilize against Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, who has riled student groups with a letter advising public universities to retreat from their policies against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

More than 3,000 people joined the Facebook page "We Don't Want Discrimination In Our State Universities And Colleges!" Nearly 1,000 people joined another, started by activists at the College of William and Mary. The University of Virginia group Queer & Allied Activism urged students to protest on Cuccinelli's Facebook page and on Twitter.

Students at Virginia Commonwealth University, one of the few in the state not on break, planned a rally for noon Wednesday, with several hundred students committed. At Christopher Newport University, student Republican and Democratic leaders will discuss their next steps at a bipartisan meeting Friday.

"I've never gotten so many e-mails from students wanting to do something," said Brandon Carroll, 21, president of the student government at Virginia Tech. He said any erosion in gay rights at state universities is "going to make us lose top students. It's going to make us lose top faculty."

A growing number of industry leaders have also lined up against the directive from Cuccinelli (R), some portraying it as a threat to the quality and competitiveness of Virginia's higher-education system.

On Thursday, Cuccinelli wrote in a letter that Virginia's public universities could not adopt policies that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation "absent specific authorization from the General Assembly." All of Virginia's largest state schools have adopted such language. Faculty leaders at William and Mary sought expanded protections for gender identity and expression earlier this school year.

In an interview Monday, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) supported the legal reasoning of Cuccinelli's letter but stressed that he would allow neither colleges nor other state agencies to discriminate.

"There's a long list of opinions. It's all separation-of-powers issues," he said. "But that doesn't mean that a governor can't say to his managers, 'I will not tolerate discrimination in this administration.' "

McDonnell indicated Monday that he might sign legislation extending legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation if it were to pass the General Assembly. "I'd consider it," he said. "I'd have to look at the legal arguments for it."

Although there was little sign of support for Cuccinelli on Virginia's campuses, others rallied behind him. The Family Foundation sent its supporters an e-mail titled "AG Follows Law, Gets Ripped" and promised to resist any push to have the legislature address the issue again before it adjourns Saturday.

The group argued that no evidence has been advanced that gay students or faculty have faced discrimination.

"The goal is not anti-discrimination -- it is forced acceptance of a lifestyle that many Virginians find antithetical to their faith," the e-mail read.

In Richmond, Democrats raced to condemn Cuccinelli's letter and pushed McDonnell to distance himself from the attorney general, with whom he shared a ticket in November. In fiery speeches on the floor of both legislative chambers, they urged McDonnell to send a bill with his blessing to the legislature to write nondiscrimination against gays into the state code.

The GOP-led House of Delegates has declined twice this year to act on similar proposals.

"The governor has said he has a personal policy of nondiscrimination. And that is fantastic," said Del. David L. Englin (D-Alexandria). "But actions speak louder than words."

Leaders of academia attacked the state directive on several fronts. The head of the Virginia conference of the American Association of University Professors wrote in a letter to the governor that any discrimination not grounded in qualification or merit "is abhorrent to the values of higher education."

Public universities generally are afforded autonomy by state governments in writing policy, said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. Virginia state code, however, is "somewhat vague" on who makes the rules, said Kirsten Nelson, spokeswoman for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

University officials mostly declined to comment, saying only that they were exploring the legal points raised in the letter.

Robert M. O'Neil, former president of U-Va. and now director of the school's Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said in an e-mail, "it is far from clear that the Attorney General would be expected to or even empowered to turn back the clock on such a vital issue of public importance," noting that the state's higher-education community is "unanimous in its commitment to equality."

Some lawmakers called Cuccinelli's stand consistent with legal opinions offered by past attorneys general, who have advised local governments that they do not have the legal right to add sexual orientation to their policies without authorization from the General Assembly.

"It seems to me that he was trying to get out his legal opinion," said Sen. Robert Hurt (R-Pittsylvania). "It doesn't seem like a clarion call to discriminate against anyone."

Staff writers Jenna Johnson, Anita Kumar, Fredrick Kunkle and Robert McCartney contributed to this report.

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