Ken Plum: A time of intolerance
Column by Del. Ken Plum
Last week I took the extraordinary step of making a motion on the floor of the House of Delegates that a bill be discharged from a committee. The rules provide for such a motion, but it is seldom made and almost never approved. Had my motion been approved, the full membership of the House of Delegates would have had the opportunity to debate a bill prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
A subcommittee of the General Laws Committee on a vote of 5-3 had refused to report a bill on this subject that had passed the Senate just as it had refused to recommend bills on nondiscrimination that I have been introducing over the past nine years.
The timing on the issue was critical as Virginia has once again made national news in an unfavorable way with the announcement that the attorney general has advised all colleges and universities that they must remove any statements of nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation from their student handbooks and other materials. As one of the first acts of his administration, Gov. McDonnell refused to continue an Executive Order from his predecessor that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in state hiring. A statement the governor issued last week came up short of being an Executive Order. Many fear with good reason that the reputation of intolerance the state is gaining may interfere with its ability to attract top-flight companies to locate here and students and professors to come to our universities.
Other actions that seem to reflect the darkest days of Virginia’s intolerance of racial integration during the period of Massive Resistance have recently been seen. Using the same arguments of states’ rights that were used during that period, there has been a series of bills proclaiming Virginia citizens’ rights over actions of the federal government. Four bills were introduced proclaiming that Virginia citizens do not have to buy medical insurance if the federal government says they have to. Such bills will be struck down by the courts, but Virginia’s attorney general is likely to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending them as a further way to burnish his conservative credentials.
Just a few weeks ago the 50th anniversary of the “Richmond 34” was celebrated here in the capital city. Among the 34 students of Virginia Union University who were arrested for a sit-in at the lunch counter at Thalhimer’s Department Store was Mamie BaCote who is now a member of the House of Delegates. Del. Algie Howell participated in sit-ins in Norfolk. In the State Senate, Sen. Henry Marsh was one of the lead attorneys in the more than 40 court cases that were necessary before Virginia desegregated its public schools. The Legislative Black Caucus has been adamant in its opposition to Gov. McDonnell’s educational reforms to start more charter and lab schools fearing I believe that having more programs outside the public schools would have the effect of resegregating the schools.
Unfortunately, these are not the only signs of intolerance in the actions of the legislature. What is happening in the legislature is reflective of the decline in civility in public discourse. But the legislature should not be a follower of negative behavior; it needs to be a leader in demonstrating and protecting tolerance for all lawful citizens.