Youngkin’s ‘almighty creator’ rhetoric in new diversity training offends some state employees

The administration overhauled the mandatory course to include religious references from a former speech

By: and - May 11, 2022 4:28 pm

Gov. Glenn Youngkin greets lawmakers at the Capitol as he arrives to deliver his first State of the Commonwealth address. His administration overhauled mandatory diversity training for state employees to include religious references. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A new diversity training Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration enacted includes two references to a “creator,” religious language that struck several workers who saw it as inappropriate for inclusion in training material that’s mandatory for new state government employees.

The Youngkin administration created the “Working Together for Virginia” video as its own attempt to comply with a 2020 law requiring the state’s human resources agency to provide an online diversity and cultural competency training course for state employees.

The “creator” lines appear to be drawn from a portion of Youngkin’s inaugural speech that was repeated in a later executive order that reshaped the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the governor’s cabinet.

“Most of all, every one of us is made in the image of our creator,” the narrator in the training course says, quoting from Youngkin’s executive order. “Since the first settlers arrived a little more than 400 years ago, we have been an imperfect people on the course to a more perfect union. At times, we’ve truly failed to live up to our ideals, but we all want to do what is right and what is morally just, even if we fall short. What is seared in our heart by a loving, almighty creator is not a desire for power or conquest, not a love of self or personal advancement, rather it’s a belief that life is worth living when we serve a greater cause than self.”

Three state employees who spoke to the Virginia Mercury on the condition of anonymity to avoid job retaliation described being shocked to find religious themes in a training they were required to take.

“It was an instant, knee-jerk, gut reaction that this is wrong on any level,” said one self-described agnostic employee. “I’m working for the state. I didn’t choose to go work for the church down the street where I expect this.”

The fact the text appeared to come from an earlier Youngkin speech, the employee said, didn’t make a difference.

“It actually makes me even madder,” the worker said. “Because then it just seals the deal that this is just all his agenda being forced into government employee training.”

Youngkin is open about his Christian faith, and shortly after being sworn into office he led a public prayer for the state. Every session of the Virginia General Assembly begins with a prayer delivered by various faith leaders, and it’s not uncommon for Virginia politicians in both parties to publicly refer to their religious beliefs. The section of the Virginia Constitution on freedom of religion and separation of church and state begins: “That religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”

Rules for religion in the workplace are more complicated, with federal protections generally requiring employers to accommodate both religious and non-religious employees alike. The definition of harassment in Virginia’s employee handbook includes conduct that “shows hostility or aversion” on the basis of religion.

A second state employee who took the training said it left them feeling “equal parts angry and sad.”

“Politics plays a role in being state employees that are subject to political whims,” the second employee said. “But never before this have I seen any sort of overt religious bias injected into anything that’s aligned with the state.”

Macaulay Porter, a Youngkin spokesperson, said the new training “reinforces the governor’s commitment to diversity while adhering to the fundamentals of equality.” In a Tuesday email, she wrote that the administration developed the course in coordination with other state agencies and officials, including the Department of Human Resource Management, Secretary of Administration Lyn McDermid and Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay James.

Asked about the employee concerns over the religious references, Porter said the language was “derived from the Declaration of Independence and other documents from the United States’ founding fathers.”

“At this time, we have not received concerns from employees,” she added. “We welcome and appreciate any feedback as the aim of the training is to guide best practices for an inclusive workplace.” 

The Virginia General Assembly first mandated diversity training for state employees in 2020, passing legislation that required an online module with specific information on race, ethnicity, gender, religion and other protected classes. The original training was developed under the state’s first-ever director of diversity, equity and inclusion appointed by former Gov. Ralph Northam.

Youngkin’s office has significantly revised the course along with adding religious references. Porter confirmed that the eight and half-minute video comprises the entirety of the administration’s current diversity training for state employees. The module now includes a message from Youngkin, as well as defining terms such as “diversity,” “equitable opportunity” and “inclusion.”

“We acknowledge that too many of our citizens have not received the equal opportunity they deserve and we recognize that diversity, when genuinely embraced, strengthens our commonwealth,” the narrator in the video says. There are also some references to specific goals, including aligning the demographics of agency staff with the demographics of Virginia as a whole.

A former official with the Northam administration who was familiar with the development process said the Northam-era module was developed in conjunction with the One Virginia plan, a framework released in 2021 that sought to “institutionalize” diversity within state agencies. The official, along with a state employee interviewed by the Mercury, said the first training was roughly an hour long, including a discussion component, and included specific sections on terms such as microaggressions and examples of ways to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Their descriptions were confirmed through a Freedom of Information Act request to the state’s Department of Human Resource Management. The agency on Wednesday provided multiple videos used in the original version of the training as well as the script, which encouraged employees to reflect on the materials and point out instances of inappropriate or insensitive behavior.

The state employee said the new course from the Youngkin administration completely removed the original training’s interactive elements with guidance on inclusive language and exercises intended to foster empathy among employees with diverse backgrounds. The lack of specificity — along with the religious overtones — left some staff feeling overlooked by the administration, the employee said. 

“I’d say it’s pretty insensitive to some and actually offensive to others,” the worker added. 

Another state employee, along with the former Northam official, expressed doubt that the revised training met the requirements of the 2020 law, which directed the course to include specific strategies on creating an inclusive and equitable culture and promoting diversity in recruitment and hiring.

“It sounds like we’re not meeting the actual statutory obligation, which is what our video was intended to do,” said the former official, who spoke under condition of anonymity to candidly discuss concerns over the changes. Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, also said the new course failed to meet the intent of the legislation, which she developed after working with a constituent who wanted to change the gender listed on their government-issued identification to match their identity.

Guzman said she ultimately had to escalate the request to the commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, underscoring the need for inclusion training among lower-level employees.

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“The governor talks about what he wants to accomplish, but he’s been on the job now for five months and we have yet to see what he’s trying to do specifically to diversify the workforce at the state level,” Guzman said. “And that’s something that’s under his control.”

Both she and the former official also shared concerns that the revised course — including the message from Youngkin — injected politics into a training that initially focused solely on workplace practices for state agencies and employees. The original material did not feature Northam or any of his political appointees, the former official said, with the hope that the module would “live beyond the administration.”

Revising much of Virginia’s former work on equity and inclusion initiatives has been a focal point of Youngkin’s term as governor. His first executive order banned “inherently divisive concepts,” including what he’s described as critical race theory, from public school classrooms. The order put an immediate end to some initiatives at the state’s Department of Education, including a push to revise statewide math curricula that factored in concerns over disproportionately lower test scores among Black, Hispanic and low-income students.

Less than two months after he took office, his administration repealed virtually every other equity-based policy within the department, including teaching resources intended to help educators address biases in the classroom. The move was part of a broader effort to remove the word “equity” from many government offices, including renaming the director of diversity, equity and inclusion — the new position created by Northam — as the director of diversity, opportunity and inclusion.

Proponents of the equity concept describe it as a more assertive approach to addressing racial disparities and systemic racism by realigning resources to ensure better outcomes for historically marginalized groups. Supporters argue that a focus on providing equal opportunities to everyone is insufficient given the historic treatment of many communities, including Black Americans, that’s put them at a continued disadvantage.

Youngkin and other conservative critics argue it encourages overly broad racial stereotypes and reorients public policy away from the idea that government action should be race-neutral. In his first executive order, the governor said that “divisive concepts,” including critical race theory, “instruct students to only view life through the lens of race and presumes that some students are consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, or oppressive, and that other students are victims.”

In public appearances, Youngkin has expressed support for concepts such as diversity while skirting specific instances of current and historic racism or oppression. His inaugural address referenced a country with “chapters of great injustice” while encouraging Virginians to come together in the present.

“We are one Virginia,” he said, language incorporated into the state’s new diversity training. “We are all sailing in the same boat.”

The ACLU of Virginia said it was looking into the matter.

“The ACLU of Virginia is very concerned by the inclusion of religious indoctrination in a required training for state employees,” said Matt Callahan, a senior ACLU staff attorney. “The First Amendment guarantees the religious freedom of all individuals by ensuring the separation of church and state, including for Commonwealth employees.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]

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