Updated: 4:21 p.m.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has directed state agencies not to discriminate against gays, essentially overriding the state attorney general’s advice to colleges. Read the full article here.
Gay and lesbian faculty, students and staff at the University of Virginia say they are outraged that Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has advised UVa and the state’s other public colleges and universities to rescind policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
“I felt disgusted when I heard about this. It’s so mean,” said Claire Kaplan, director of sexual and domestic violence services at UVa’s Women’s Center. “The attorney general is supposed to be Virginia’s top law enforcement officer. He’s supposed to protect the citizens of Virginia from harm. How does this protect anyone? It only hurts people.”
Cuccinelli, a Republican from Fairfax County, sent a confidential letter to universities last week advising them to remove “sexual orientation” from their nondiscrimination policies, noting that only the General Assembly has the authority to establish legally protected classes of Virginians.
“It is my advice that the law and public policy of the commonwealth of Virginia prohibit a college or university from including ‘sexual orientation,’ ‘gender identity’ ‘gender expression,’ or like classification as a protected class within its nondiscrimination policy, absent specific authorization from the General Assembly,” Cucci-nelli wrote in the letter, which was obtained last week by The Daily Progress.
Under Virginia law, discrimination is barred solely on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, marital status or disability. On numerous occasions — including as recently as Tuesday — the GOP-majority House of Delegates has opted not to endorse measures that would extend protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
UVa’s nondiscrimination policy has prohibited discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation” since 1991.
‘Causing fear, anxiety’
On Tuesday, a couple of dozen concerned UVa employees gathered in Thorn-ton Hall to discuss strategies to convince UVa’s Board of Visitors to rebuff the attorney general’s legal advice on the matter.
The group, convened by UVa Pride — the university’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender faculty, staff and graduate student association — discussed sending letters, petitions and statements from key university officials in opposition to changing the nondiscrimination policy.
UVa employees who are gay or lesbian, they said, are worried that if UVa takes the attorney general’s advice, their jobs might be at risk, they might get passed over for promotions or might face some other form of discrimination.
“These actions [by the attorney general] are causing fear, anxiety, disorientation,” said Edward Strickler Jr., programs coordinator of UVa’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy and managing editor of Developments in Mental Health Law.
Another top concern voiced at Tuesday’s meeting was that undoing protections for gays and lesbians would send a message that UVa and Virginia’s other public universities are unwelcoming, possibly alienating top faculty and student recruits.
UVa is keeping mum about its response to Cuccinelli’s letter. A request for comment by Rector John O. Wynne was not returned. UVa spokeswoman Carol Wood said the university is looking into the issue.
“The university is currently seeking advice in several places regarding the implications of the attorney general’s letter,” she wrote in an e-mail. “This is a complex issue that we believe will take considerable time and thoughtful review.”
Behind the scenes, several faculty members said UVa administration officials are trying to keep the university’s nondiscrimination policy from being changed.
“All of the UVa administration is very supportive of us,” said Ellen J. Bass, an associate professor in UVa’s Department of Systems and Information Engineering. “And walking around Grounds, there are many, many people who are honestly disgusted and frustrated with what’s happening.”
‘They don’t like the law’
Cuccinelli, in remarks to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, said his position is in keeping with the opinions of past attorneys general going back to the early 1980s.
“The focus of those who are upset is they don’t like the law in Virginia,” he told the paper. “No one has credibly contested our interpretation of Virginia law. No one.”
At least two groups have questioned Cuccinelli’s view. The ACLU of Virginia says that colleges and universities should not rescind protections for gay and lesbian employees because they are protected against governmental discrimination under the U.S. Constitution. Lambda Legal, a civil rights organization for gays and lesbians, argues that universities in Virginia have long had the authority to establish numerous types of policies and regulations for their own institutions.
Executive order expired
Cuccinelli’s letter comes on the heels of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s decision to not renew an executive order signed by his Democratic predecessors Timothy M. Kaine and Mark R. Warner that barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in state employment. McDonnell has said that the executive branch does not have the authority to establish gays and lesbians as a protected class, but will not tolerate discrimination of any kind in his administration.
Virginia’s Democratic-led Senate approved a bill that would protect state employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but the measure died in a House subcommittee. On Tuesday, a procedural move to revive the legislation failed on a mostly party line vote.
Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, voted to bring the measure back up, while Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, voted against the idea. Bell did not return a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Word of Cuccinelli’s letter has roiled college campuses across Virginia.
Some 4,755 people have joined a Facebook group called We Don’t Want Discrimination in Our State Universities and Colleges. Four campus forums were held Tuesday to discuss the matter at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. A UVa student group called Queer and Allied Activism, who are on spring break, has been organizing over social networking sites and is urging UVa students to contact Cuccinelli and McDonnell to voice their opposition.