Democrats to push bill protecting gays in Va.

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 1, 2011

RICHMOND - Democrats in Virginia are hoping to translate momentum from the successful national repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy into new traction for legislation that would explicitly ban discrimination against gays in the state workforce.

Similar measures have been sponsored for years, each time blocked by Republicans in the House of Delegates who argue that there is no need for a law because there's no evidence the state discriminates against gay employees.

But Democrats are looking to spark new energy around the issue when the General Assembly convenes Jan. 12. They have also been galvanized by a letter written by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) to state universities and colleges in March advising them to remove language dealing with sexual orientation from nondiscrimination policies because the state had never passed a law on the issue.

"The attorney general's outlandish behavior has raised some eyebrows and causes some people to give a second thought to this issue," said Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who is sponsoring the legislation in the House of Delegates. "Outright bigotry is much less acceptable in our society and is becoming less acceptable as the years pass."

Federal law prohibits discrimination on grounds that include race, religion and sex but not sexual orientation. The proposed legislation would write those protections into the state code and extend them to gay employees. At least 30 other states have similar laws.

Democrats appear to be spoiling for a public fight over the issue in a year when all 140 seats of the General Assembly will be up for election in November. A video from the state party's executive director recently called on supporters to sign up as "citizen sponsors" - essentially a petition to drive public support - of the legislation.

For a party that has faced two years of crushing electoral defeats in Virginia and is struggling to find a voice, the nondiscrimination legislation offers an opportunity to rally the Democrats' base while casting Republicans as out of step with moderate voters.

"What's happened is that the middle has shifted," said Quentin Kidd, a government professor at Christopher Newport University. "Even four or eight years ago, these were good issues for Republicans. . . . But you have seen that median voters shift considerably to the left on these issues."

Some Virginia conservatives dispute that notion.

Though polls have shown that Virginians oppose discrimination in the job market against gays and lesbians, these opponents say the public doesn't necessarily support writing protections into state law.

"I'm fascinated that Democrats in Virginia seem to want to follow the game plan of Democrats in Washington that just led to their biggest electoral defeat in years," said Chris Freund, spokesman for the Family Foundation, which supports conservative social values. "Who knew that [Democratic leaders] got their marching orders from Lady Gaga?"

The proposals would specifically reference "gender identity" as well sexual orientation, language that opponents say expands the bill in ways they find troubling.

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