SB701, a bill to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in state employment, passed the Virginia Senate Friday morning by a 24-16 vote. The measure will now head to the House of Delegates.
Four Republicans sided with the upper chamber's 20 Democrats to ensure passage. Voting in the affirmative were Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City, Hampton, Suffolk, Surry, Isle of Wight, Poquoson, New Kent, Gloucester, King William, King and Queen counties), Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach, Norfolk), Sen. John Watkins (R-Richmond, Chesterfield, Powhatan counties) and Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Winchester, Frederick, Clarke, Fauquier, Loudoun and Stafford counties). Vogel paved the way for the measure's passage after she sided with Democrats to pass the bill out of the General Laws and Technology Committee on a narrow 8-7 vote.
The measure now faces a more difficult climb in the House of Delegates, where Republicans have a supermajority, controlling the chamber 68-32. Most House Democrats and three House Republicans have signed on as co-patrons so far. Supporters of SB701 are hopeful that grassroots campaigning and pressure from constituents will force some Republicans to vote for the bill. The measure needs 51 votes to pass the lower chamber.
"We're going to press forward with this momentum," said Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax counties), one of the bill's chief co-patrons. "No state employee should ever doubt Virginia’s commitment to equal opportunity employment for all. This assures state employees that they will be judged solely on their merits and that discrimination has no place in Virginia."
"SB701 is all about fairness and all Virginians deserve equal opportunity, justice and fairness," Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Charles City and Henrico counties, Richmond), the other chief co-patron, said in a statement. "The people must continue to lead the legislature and remind the House that Virginia is an open state and welcoming to all folks as we move this bill ahead."
The bill would bring state government employers in line with policies already adopted and expanded upon by the private sector. According to LGBT rights group Equality Virginia, 80 percent of Virginia's top 25 employers have policies protecting at least sexual orientation, and 60 percent of those companies protect gender identity and expression.
Several major employers in Virginia not only have nondiscrimination policies on the books, but offer domestic partner benefits. Those include consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., mortgage lender Freddie Mac, defense firms Northrop Grumman Corp. and General Dynamics Corp. and Capital One Financial Corp., according to the Human Rights Campaign's 2013 Corporate Equality Index.
"In Virginia, LGBT protections will not pass without bipartisan support," Equality Virginia Director James Parrish said in a statement following SB701's passage. "We are pleased four Republican senators joined their Democratic colleagues in passing SB701 to protect LGBT state employees. In the private sector, workplace protections are shown to decrease legal vulnerability while enhancing the employer's reputation, increasing job satisfaction and boosting employee morale and productivity."
As part of its push to pass SB701, Equality Virginia will be hosting a "Day of Action" in Richmond on Tuesday, Jan. 29, where they expect concerned citizens and LGBT allies will lobby reticent lawmakers to support the bill. Equality Virginia has said it has private polling showing nearly 90 percent of Virginians support employment protections for LGBT residents.
"Making sure elected officials hear LGBT issues are important to all Virginians is the most important thing any citizen can do to open hearts and minds across the state," Parrish continued. "We’re very fortunate the senators that voted in support today are listening to their constituents."
[Photo: Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (courtesy of the Virginia General Assembly)]