Heading into the 2019 session, the LGBT rights group Equality Virginia had high hopes.
The group had lined up a Republican sponsor in the House of Delegates for a bill to ban housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Three House Republicans appeared at a news conference in January to support the bill, enough to show the legislation would likely pass if it came to a vote on the House floor.
The bill never got there, because Republican leaders never gave it a committee hearing.
“I asked for a hearing,” said Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, the bill’s sponsor. “Next year, I’ll be back.”
Other LGBT non-discrimination bills that passed the Senate with bipartisan support met a similar fate.
The House General Laws Committee abruptly adjourned its last meeting Thursday night without hearing two LGBT housing discrimination bills sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.
Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover, the General Laws chairman, said his committee typically doesn’t take the time to hear bills that have failed in previous sessions and doesn’t hear the Senate versions of House bills it declined to take up.
“We tried to take up as much legislation as possible,” Peace said.
James Parrish, the executive director for Equality Virginia, said the House’s refusal to give the bills a hearing shows Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, “doesn’t share the values of Virginians” and should be replaced with new leadership next year. Cox’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“We feel that we put together a robust showing of support for these bills from top to bottom in Virginia’s communities,” Parrish said. “We have always worked very hard to be bipartisan and have a long history of working with Republican leadership in the Senate.”
The House General Laws Committee also did not hear bills that would ban anti-LGBT discrimination in public employment. But Republicans have argued they dealt with that issue in their own way.
The House GOP passed a bill to clarify in the Virginia Personnel Act that public employees should be judged “solely upon merit and fitness,” without explicitly outlawing employment discrimination against LGBT people.
When Democrats tried to add employment protections for LGBT state workers through the budget process, Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said the Republican bill he sponsored accomplishes the same goal, even though Democrats called it inadequate and misguided.
“I absolutely take offense to where someone said we do not have a non-discrimination bill this year,” Knight said.
When Knight’s bill was being debated on the House floor earlier this month, Democrats said it could unintentionally impede the state’s efforts to seek out people of color or women in order to boost diversity in the workforce.
“When we don’t have a little subjectivity in some of our hiring practices, you’re missing out on some very talented people,” said Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk.
Knight said he believes “all folks are equal,” but would not support a “lawyer enhancement bill that creates special classes of people.”
Peace said Knight’s bill addressed discrimination in state employment, but he and other Republicans “don’t necessarily believe in additional carveouts or special preferences” beyond what’s in the state’s existing fair housing laws.
He said Republicans have floated other ideas for addressing LGBT housing discrimination by enshrining the Realtors’ ethics code in state law or amending the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act.
The bills supported by Equality Virginia would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to the non-discrimination section of the Virginia Fair Housing Law.
“I think the advocacy community, whether that’s Equality Virginia or others, they’re taking a ‘my way or the highway’ approach,” Peace said. “That’s not how we do policymaking.”
Virginia’s fair housing law already prohibits discrimination based on “race, color, religion, national origin, sex, elderliness, familial status, or handicap.”
The other Republican proposals to address LGBT discrimination, Parrish said, are “dead-end ways for them to not address the thing in front of them.”
“Anything else they’re putting up ... is just smoke and mirrors to avoid protecting gay and trans people,” Parrish said.