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Civil-rights groups respond to AG letter on nondiscrimination policy

Story by Chris Graham

“It is my advice,” reads a March 4 letter from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli addressed to “Presidents, Rectors, and Visitors of Virginia’s Public Colleges and Universities,” “that the law and public policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia prohibit a college or university from including ‘sexual orientation,’ ‘gender identity,’ ‘gender expression,’ or like classification, as a protected class within its nondiscrimination policy, absent specific authorization from the General Assembly.”

In a single letter, Cuccinelli is “turning back the clock on civil rights in Virginia,” Roanoke Democratic State Sen. John Edwards said on Friday.

The words of Portsmouth Democratic State Sen. Louise Lucas: “This is not a proud day for Virginia.”

Henrico Democratic State Sen. Donald McEachin, for his part, invoked the 2009 gubernatorial campaign. “Attorney General Cuccinelli and Gov. McDonnell are putting McDonnell’s troubling graduate school thesis into practice,” McEachin said.

The state civil-rights community is taking the letter from Cuccinelli as a call to action. The ACLU of Virginia said Friday that it is sending letters to the presidents of Virginia’s public colleges and universities “warning them against taking any action that would permit discrimination against gay and lesbian employees or students.

According to the ACLU, gays and lesbians are protected against governmental discrimination by the U.S. Constitution.

“Cuccinelli’s letter is an affront to anyone who stands for the principle of equal protection under the law,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “Regardless of state law or policy, not only should universities prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but they are required to do so under the U.S. Constitution.

“If Ken Cuccinelli is trying to say that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t apply in Virginia,” Willis said, “his first significant act as attorney general is a giant step backwards and a huge embarrassment for the state.”

The Cuccinelli letter comes on the heels of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s move last month to erase sexual orientation as a protected class in his executive order laying out nondiscrimination policy for state workers.

Jon Blair, the CEO of Equality Virginia, a Richmond-based GLBT civil-rights group, is calling on McDonnell to live up to what he said on the ’09 campaign trail to refute criticisms related to his controversial 1989 graduate-school thesis.

“It is time that Gov. McDonnell come out from hiding and rein in Mr. Cuccinelli before his embarrassing and regressive actions permanently damage the reputation, educational system and competitiveness of our great Commonwealth. It is the least we can expect from a governor who supposedly opposes discrimination,” Blair said.

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