By MARIAH YOUNG
The Virginia State Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in hiring for state agencies. In a 19-19 vote tie, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam cast a tie-breaking vote to pass the legislation through the Senate.
Senate Bill 785 was sponsored by Senator Donald McEachin, the Democratic senator for Virginia’s 9th Senate district.
“I am pleased to see this bill pass the Senate. Virginians’ employment should be based on their job performance, not on other irrelevant characteristics,” said McEachin in a statement. “All Virginians deserve equal opportunity, justice and fairness and this bill is an important first step.”
Republican Senators John Watkins (Powhatan) and Jill Holtzman (Fauquier) broke from their party and voted with the 17 Democrats in the Senate, causing the 19-19 split. This marked Northam’s first tie-breaking vote of the Virginia General Assembly’s 2015 session.
“Employment discrimination in any form is truly unacceptable, and the Commonwealth should be held to a high standard in this regard,” said Northam in a statement. “I was proud to cast today’s tie breaking vote to ensure state employees are not treated differently simply due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The legislation will now move to the Virginia House of Delegates, which is also a Republican-controlled body.
“I hope the House of Delegates will also take a bipartisan approach to codifying non-discrimination for Virginians,” said McEachin.
According to Associated Press, the Senate has passed similar bills in previous sessions, but the legislation died in the Republican-controlled House.
Virginia’s past four governors have all issued executive orders to ban sexual orientation discrimination in state hiring, yet the prohibition has never been codified into law by the General Assembly.
The passage of this bill comes on the heels of other debates in the Virginia General Assembly over protections against LGBT discrimination. Last week, a bill to legalize smart phone car services, such as Uber or Lyft, in Virginia was reworked to remove language that would have prohibited drivers to discriminate against LGBT customers.
According to the Washington Post, the language was not noticed until the bill went to the State Senate floor. Quietly, the bill was sent back to committee and stripped of the anti-discrimination language. The legislation’s original language stated that drivers would be prohibited from discriminating against passengers based on “points of departure and destination, race, color, national origin, religious belief or affiliation, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
However, the quick changes overseen by the Transportation Committee headed by Republican Senator Stephen D. Newman (Lynchburg) reworked the language to say the car services must “comply with all applicable laws regarding nondiscrimination.” Currently, Virginia nondiscrimination law does not include protection of LGBT members, a reason for the necessity of Sen. McEachin’s bill.
Last week also saw the defeat of two bills, both in the House and the Senate, that would have repealed Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban, which was struck down by a federal court almost a year ago and was upheld by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals this past October.
When the Supreme Court refused to take up the 4th Circuit Court’s ruling, it effectively legalized same-sex marriage in the Commonwealth. Same-sex couples were immediately able to begin applying for marriage licenses, but the ban remains within Virginia’s code.
The two measures to remove the marriage ban from the Virginia code were struck down by the Civil Law Subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee and the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.
Opponents of same-sex marriage urged Virginia lawmakers to wait and see what happens in the upcoming Supreme Court ruling on whether states have the power to ban same-sex marriages and refuse to recognize same-sex marriages that occurred in a different state. The cases before the Supreme Court come from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, but will have national implications on the future of same-sex marriage in the U.S.