RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia is expected to become the first state in more than a decade to add sweeping non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people after the House and Senate passed the “Virginia Values Act” on Thursday.
Advocates say more than 30 states still don’t have these protections. They expect Virginia to become the first state in the South to include them.
Del. Danica Roem (D-13), Virginia’s first openly transgender lawmaker, said Thursday was historic for the LGBTQ community.
“We’ve been waiting 401 years for this moment to arrive,” Roem said Thursday ahead of the vote. “I know this bill will save lives.”
The bill bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public accommodations, housing, employment, education and credit. Parts of the bill also expand these protections on the basis of race, religion, disability and status as a veteran, among others
It also outlines a path to pursue legal action by giving the Attorney General new authority to investigate claims, initiate civil suits and enforce fines of up to $50,000 for a first offense. Victims can also litigate issues privately.
“I think a lot of Virginians believe that this is already the law,”said Del. Mark Sickles (D-43), one of five members of the LGBTQ caucus.
Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30), the first openly gay person elected to Virginia’s General Assembly, recalled visiting the Capitol 30 years ago when he said very few lawmakers were even willing to meet about these issues.
The momentum this session comes after the Human Rights Campaign helped flip seven districts last election.
“Both the Senate and the House of Delegates are being run by pro-equality candidates. That has never happened before,” said Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David.
In the House of Delegates, 35 Republicans voted against the bill. Del. Dave LaRock (R-37) warned it would require the use of a person’s preferred pronouns. He added the act is a way to “weaponize the government to punish those with a viewpoint different than the government.”
Sen. Amanda Chase (R-11) was one of nine senators who voted in opposition. She’s concerned the bill will dismantle religious freedom by forcing business owners to put their beliefs to the side or be punished.
“I believe in equal treatment under the law. I don’t necessarily support special treatment under the law which I think this is,” Chase said in an interview before the vote.
When asked to respond to those who think these protections are essential for equality, Chase said, “In my opinion it is not necessary and it could have some unintended consequences.”
Del. Sickle emphasized this bill will not impact private institutions, like schools, where religious beliefs are a prerequisite
House Republicans also pointed out that the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management, which tracks discrimination incidents, has no recorded cases on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The idea that anyone can tell me that this discrimination doesn’t exist when I’ve lived it and I hear it from all corners of the Commonwealth, I know we still have more work to do,” said Del. Roem.
The bill still has to be finalized and signed by Governor Ralph Northam before it’s expected to become law.