With Republicans in control of the General Assembly, LGBTQ rights advocates trying to pass stronger anti-discrimination laws in Virginia knew they had to think small.
After Election Day, that’s all over.
In an interview, James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, said his group is widening its policy agenda in preparation for the first Democratic-controlled legislative session in more than two decades.
“There is an opportunity to pass legislation that supports Virginia’s LGBTQ community more broadly than just nondiscrimination protection,” Parrish said.
For starters, Parrish said, lawmakers will reintroduce bills that have already drawn bipartisan support in previous sessions. But the new dynamic will also mean new proposals, some of which may stir stronger opposition from social conservatives worried about the consequences for people or institutions with traditional religious beliefs.
So what exactly is on the to-do list?
The Virginia Fair Housing Law already bars discrimination based on characteristics like race, sex and religion.
A bill to to add sexual orientation and gender identity to that list – which would prevent landlords and property owners from refusing to sell or rent to people based on their LGBTQ status – passed the state Senate 36-4 this year under a GOP majority. It didn’t get a vote in the House, despite having a Republican sponsor in Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield.
“It would be hard to think of a reason why Democrats wouldn’t push it across the finish line,” Parrish said.
In the 2019 session, Robinson’s housing bill was left in the House General Laws Committee without a vote. The Senate version met the same fate when it got to the House.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who sponsored the Senate version of the housing bill, said the election results are a “huge deal” for LGBTQ rights issues.
“I think that is an area where we would have been able to make some progress had it not been for Republicans in the House who wouldn’t even hear legislation,” McClellan said.
Though the last two Democratic governors have signed executive orders protecting LGBTQ employees in the state workforce, Virginia does not have a law explicitly barring anti-LGBTQ discrimination in government workplaces.
Like the housing legislation, a bill codifying a broad nondiscrimination policy for public employment passed the Senate this year, but failed in the House.
For next year, Parrish said, the goal is a more ambitious nondiscrimination bill that would also apply to private employers.
“We anticipate getting a lot of corporate support for it,” Parrish said.
In addition to making it illegal to fire someone based on LGBTQ status, advocates are expected to propose legislation that would prevent some businesses from denying service to LGBTQ people. (A slew of bills were filed Monday. Check them out here.)
Though federal civil rights law states that restaurants, hotels and theaters can’t discriminate against customers based on race, religious or national origin, LGBTQ people do not have the same status nationwide.
Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, one of five LGBTQ lawmakers in the General Assembly, said he’ll sponsor nondiscrimination legislation covering employment and public accommodations that will include sexual orientation and gender identity among its protected classes.
“It’s a big deal to know that you can’t just be swept aside as a second-class citizen,” Ebbin said. “And it’ll matter. There’s a lot of people older than me who thought this kind of environment would never come.”
Twenty states and the District of Columbia include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in public accommodations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
That discussion could draw comparisons to the much-debated case of a Colorado baker who was sanctioned by his state’s civil rights commission for refusing to make a cake for a same-sex wedding celebration.
In a 7-2 opinion last year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a narrow ruling in favor of the baker, saying the civil rights commission had shown hostility toward religious beliefs. But the high court did not resolve the broader question of how governments and courts should reconcile the rights of LGBTQ customers to be free from discrimination with the right to religious freedom.
Parrish said next year’s legislative push, backed by a newly formed umbrella group called the Virginia Values Coalition, will likely require an educational campaign on the public accommodations issue.
“We don’t allow the baker to not create cakes for biracial couples,” Parrish said. “You would be held to the same standard.”
Parrish said Equality Virginia’s legislative agenda will also include the creation of “consistent and affirmative policies” for transgender students in public schools.
Currently, decisions about transgender students’ rights are decided at the local level, which has produced uneven results. While some school divisions have adopted policies meant to promote an inclusive environment for LGBTQ students, others have taken a different approach or left policies unclear by avoiding the issue.
“That’s just a mess right now,” Parrish said.
Parrish said the schools-related legislation is still in draft form, but it would direct state education officials to craft a model policy that could address the use of school facilities, dress codes and students’ names and gender pronouns.
In previous sessions, Democratic lawmakers have introduced bills to restrict the practice of conversion therapy, which aims to change a person’s sexual orientation.
Those efforts have failed on party lines, but state health regulatory boards have moved forward on policies to prevent state-licensed professionals from using the technique — which isn’t regarded as a legitimate therapy by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association — on minors.
Last month, Virginia Beach passed a resolution asking the General Assembly to ban conversion therapy.
Though it’s not clear if the full slate of pro-LGBTQ proposals will pass in the 2020 session, supporters say the bills’ reception will be entirely different under Democratic control.
“Any time you bring up a new issue you just need the time to educate people on it,” McClellan said. “I think in general it’s a much friendlier audience that’s willing to have those conversations and move the ball forward.”
Even as some Republicans moderate their rhetoric on LGBTQ issues, it’s clear there will continue to push back against bills seen as threatening to family values and religious beliefs.
In a blog post about the election results, Victoria Cobb of the nonprofit Family Foundation, which advocates for “policies based on Biblical principles that enable families to flourish,” urged supporters to fight against a “robust legislative agenda” that she said could loosen laws on abortion and euthanasia and turn LGBTQ people into a “specially protected class in every part of society.”
“It can be tempting to walk away from the battle after suffering a defeat, but now more than ever we need you to stand with us against the darkness that is about to descend over our commonwealth,” Cobb wrote.
Ebbin said he expects opposition from those who “can’t accept reality for the 21st century.” But the possible breakthroughs in the 2020 legislative session, he said, have been a long time coming for LGBTQ Virginians and the “countless” people who feel they deserve the same protections others enjoy.
“We’ve come forward. We’re not going back,” Ebbin said. “And I think there’s momentum to bring us to where we should and need to be.”