RICHMOND — Bills meant to protect gay and transgender people from housing and employment discrimination died in a Republican-dominated House panel Thursday, prompting jeers of “Shame!” from activists who packed a Capitol hearing room.
On a straight party-line vote, members of a General Laws subcommittee voted 5 to 2 to kill four bills, some of which had already cleared the Republican-controlled state Senate, which tends to be more socially moderate than the House.
“The vast majority of fair-minded Virginians support these long-overdue protections that were passed with strong bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled Senate,” said Marty Rouse, national field director of the Human Rights Campaign. “House Republican leaders are completely out of step with what voters made clear at the ballot box in November.”
Opponents of the bills contend that they could have interfered with religious freedom, with some suggesting that religious institutions such as Liberty University could be forced to let gay couples occupy its dorms for married students.
Only one Republican on the panel spoke to the measures before the votes. Del. Jason S. Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) said he was torn between the desire to “treat everybody with dignity and respect” and the need to protect religious freedom. He said he would be willing to work toward a compromise, but not this year.
“I would love to get to ‘yes’ on some of these,” he said.
The votes came as Virginia Republicans are seeking to rebrand in the aftermath of devastating losses in statewide and House of Delegates elections in November. House Republican leaders have tried to play down social issues this year, a goal reflected in the dearth of conservative legislation to restrict gay rights and abortion rights or to expand gun rights.
But the GOP has not lost the will to fight back against Democratic bills in those areas.
The four bills were all brought by Democrats, Sens. Adam P. Ebbin (Alexandria) and Jennifer T. Wexton (Loudoun) and Dels. Marcus B. Simon (Fairfax) and Mark H. Levine (Alexandria). Ebbin and Levine are two of only a few openly gay lawmakers.
Last month, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed an executive order shortly after his inauguration banning such discrimination in government employment. One of the bills would have codified that into law.
“I don’t know who is affected by me, as a transgender person, living next to them. I just want to have an apartment,” said Katelyn O’Brien, 30, a shipyard mechanic from Newport News. “I don’t know why this is still being debated.”
O’Brien was part of a large chorus of activists and ordinary Virginians who spoke in favor of the bills. Aleta Strickland of rural Louisa, who identified herself as the parent of a gay adult, said the measures would help LGBT people “grow up, get a job, and move out of their parents’ house.”
“As a father of three, I appreciate your comments,” subcommittee chairman Hyland F. “Buddy” Fowler Jr. (R-Hanover) replied.
The legislation also drew opposition from conservative groups. Jeff Caruso of the Virginia Catholic Conference said the bills could force faith-based colleges and organizations to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.
“We cannot sever our beliefs from our services,” he said. “Our beliefs animate our services.”
Bill Janis of the Family Foundation suggested the measures were unnecessary because the largest employers in Richmond already prohibit anti-discrimination in hiring. He also took issue with the broad language in at least one bill, which aimed to ban discrimination based on “actual or perceived” homosexuality.
“Every single person in this room would qualify as a protected person under these acts,” he said. Supporters of the bills thought that sounded like a good thing and applauded.