By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010; B01
RICHMOND -- Hoping to quell a growing uproar on Virginia's college campuses over gay rights, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell issued a directive to all 102,000 state employees Wednesday that prohibits discrimination in the state workforce, including on the basis of sexual orientation, and warns he will reprimand or fire anyone who engages in it.
McDonnell's directive comes a week after Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) distributed a letter to the state's public colleges and universities asking them to remove references to sexual orientation from their campus nondiscrimination policies. Cuccinelli says that only the General Assembly has the authority to extend legal protections to gays.
McDonnell (R) has said he supports the legal reasoning of that opinion, which mirrored his advice on the issue as attorney general. The governor said Wednesday that he continues to believe that without legislative approval, universities and state agencies cannot issue orders that would allow employees or others to sue in state court over discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
And, in a departure from his Democratic predecessor's stance, McDonnell issued an executive order last month, which carries the force of law, on the issue of workplace discrimination that did not mention sexual orientation.
But McDonnell said Wednesday that Cuccinelli's letter had caused confusion and anger among students, college presidents and others that he could address with a clear statement opposing discrimination and a promise to use the human resources process to punish an employee found to have shown bias.
The directive is a formal statement of McDonnell's position that hiring, promotion, compensation, treatment, discipline and termination of state employees can be based only on an individual's job qualifications, merit and performance.
"We will not tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation or any other basis that's outlawed under state or federal law or the Constitution, and if it is reported, then I will take action, from reprimand to termination, to make sure that does not occur," McDonnell said. "I believe this properly takes care of it and assures the good people of Virginia that we will absolutely not have discrimination in this state."
Describing his statement as a call for "civility and fair treatment," McDonnell said he was encouraging universities and independent state agencies to adopt policies or clarify their existing nondiscrimination statements to ensure they can enforce his directive.
The statement was the most forceful yet on gay issues for McDonnell, who was elected in November on a pledge to focus on jobs and the economy while upholding conservative social values. McDonnell's move might indicate a split over strategy with Cuccinelli, whose political philosophy he broadly shares.
In a brief statement, however, Cuccinelli applauded McDonnell for the "tone he is setting for the Commonwealth of Virginia."
"I will remain in contact with the Governor and continue to work with him on issues important to Virginians," Cuccinelli's statement continued. "I expect Virginia's state employees to follow all state and federal anti-discrimination laws and will enforce Virginia's laws to the fullest extent."
The gay rights group Equality Virginia called McDonnell's directive a "a major positive step forward," although it said it would continue to work for the passage of legislation that would extend legal protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
McDonnell's actions also received praise from the presidents of the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia. The leaders of the Northern Virginia Technology Council also applauded the news and said in a statement that they thought Cuccinelli's opinion had been an "unwarranted and unnecessary intrusion" into the governance of state universities that could damage the state's business climate.
McDonnell's directive came on the same day that more than 1,000 students rallied at Richmond's Virginia Commonwealth University and as reaction to Cuccinelli's letter had been growing nationally and within Virginia's business community. The topic was a subject of a lengthy segment on "The Daily Show" Tuesday, and some students had been sending e-mails about their concerns to Northrop Grumman, the defense corporation weighing sites around the region for its corporate headquarters, urging them to avoid Virginia.
Democrats have risen on the floor of the legislature each day this week to rail against the attorney general's action and to call on McDonnell to send legislation to the General Assembly that would codify nondiscrimination before the annual session adjourns Saturday.
They were countered on the House floor Wednesday by Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who suggested the reaction against Cuccinelli might be an attack against his Catholic faith.
Marshall said last night that McDonnell's directive carries no force and is no more than a "press release with fluff around it."
Staff writer Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.