Virginia has become the first Southern US state to pass broad-spectrum LGBTQI rights legislation banning discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
The ‘Virginia Values Act’ bill passed through the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates on February 7 with bipartisan votes of 59-35 in the House and 30-9 in the Senate.
Advocates and activists are praising Virginia lawmakers for making the state the first in America’s South to enact such protections for the LGBTQI community after newly elected Democrats continued to advance anti-discrimination bills that Republicans had blocked for years.
The Virginia Values Act has also introduced a new legal framework allowing people who feel they’ve been discriminated against based on race, age, sex, religion and pregnancy, to take legal action against the offender.
The bill also allows the attorney general’s office to take civil action against those “engaged in a pattern or practice of resistance” to the civil rights protected in the new legislation.
While concerns have been raised by some about the bills potential impacts on religious freedom, others have described the passing as a landmark moment in human rights legislation.
Senator Adam Ebbin, the first openly gay person elected to Virginia’s state office and a major sponsor behind the bill, noted the need for eradicating discrimination across the state.
“It’s important to know that discrimination is still happening in Virginia. It is time to drive it out,” he said at a press conference before the vote.
Sen. Ebbin also discussed his first visit to the General Assembly about 30 years ago to lobby for gay rights and praised the social progress that has happened even in the past three decades.
“Very few lawmakers came out of their offices to meet with us, and I don’t think it made a difference — at least at that time,” he said.
“Now we have five members of the LGBT caucus, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.”
While many see the introduction of such legislation as a legal protector for the LGBTQI community, religious advocacy organisations criticised the bill as a tool for punishing people who oppose gay marriage for faith-based reasons.
Republican Delegate, David LaRock said in a speech he gave before the bill’s introduction that the measure would force those in the workplace to use a transgender person’s preferred pronouns, as well as penalise people who decline to work on gay weddings.
“Make no mistake, this bill is intended to dismantle religious freedom and to force the government to make everyone conform to its version of marriage and sexuality, he said.