In late June, the ACLU of Va. released an 18-page summary of over 100 bills regarding civil liberties and civil rights passed and defeated in this year’s General Assembly. Since 1990, the ACLU of Va. annually surveys the sessions under the civil liberties review.
Kent Willis, the Executive Dir. for the ACLU of Va., said they support and oppose a number of bills that reach the General Assembly.
“We’re always involved in a large number of bills, typically as many as 60 or 70. Happily, many of these bills die an early death in the General Assembly and our focus ends up on a handful; a couple of dozen that have real implications for civil liberties in Virginia," Willis said. "To some extent what we’re doing with those bills, of course, is opposing bad bills that erode civil liberties. The other side of it is that we get behind and lobby in favor of bills that we believe that protect or expand civil liberties.”
The A.C.L.U. of Va. has monitored the Va. G.A. since the 1970's. Willis has principally evaluated the sessions since 1987.
“We are always concerned about the fundamental right of freedom of expression because we believe that all other rights emanate from that one," Willis said. "So, we monitor it most closely and we’re certainly known for both our lobbying expertise as well as our litigation on first amendment issues.”
One such issue passed, allowing the D.M.V. to offer a plate that reads: "Trust Women, Respect Choice." Willis said that this is one of the good first amendment victories in the General Assembly.
“The first one was the pro-choice specialty license plate. While this is an issue that would seem to be related to reproductive freedom, and it is in the sense of its message which we support, the real issue is would the G.A. pass a specialty license plate with a pro-choice message on it," he said. "Last year it passed a plate with an anti-choice message on it and our first amendment free speech argument is that these kinds of license plates are essentially public forums. They’re like a park or a sidewalk where you have a right to express your opinion and the government can’t interfere with that. We claimed that if the G.A. passed an anti-choice license plate last year then they were required to pass a pro-choice license plate this year assuming one was introduced in the G.A.”
The generated revenue from the plates goes to Planned Parenthood, an organization focused on informing and helping individuals to make responsible and healthy decisions about sex, sexuality, and parenthood.
Jessica Honke, Director of Public Policy for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, said her organization faced opposition from legislators.
“They tried to amend the legislation so that the proceeds from the plate would go to another organization that was not Planned Parenthood, we were able to defeat that amendment and ensure that the proceeds would be coming to Planned Parenthood of Virginia," said Honke. "And the proceeds from the plates will be used for reproductive health care services such as gynecological exams, breast exams, S.T.I. testing and treatment - those types of things - birth control, contraception.”
Gov. Robert McDonnell amended the bill so that money received from the sale of these plates would not go to fund abortions.
The General Assembly also passed a bill that allows students to be excuse from school when observing a religious holiday that’s not normally recognized by the state.
“Believe it or not, this was not already the law in Virginia and schools sort of did this on their own basis," Willis said. "But, what the law now says is that if a student wants to take a day off to observe a religious holiday then they have a right to do that. And this is part of accommodating individuals based on their religious beliefs which we are very supportive of.”
Not all bills supported by the A.C.L.U of Va. were victorious. Sen. Bill 66, to prohibit the discrimination of gays and lesbians in state employment, passed in the Senate but failed in the House of Delegates. Unlike the past two governors, McDonnell did not issue an executive order to protect sexual orientation discrimination in state employment, but did issue an executive directive. Directives, unlike an executive order, possess no power of law.
“McDonnell’s failure to sign the executive order seemed to actually be the impetus the General Assembly might finally have needed to actually pass a law," Willis said. "In other words, if the governor of Virginia wasn’t going to make a clear statement against discrimination then it was time for the General Assembly to step forward and do that."
Unfortunately, they didn’t. The Senate supported the bill, but the House of Delegates did not, so Virginia’s right back where it started from.”
Jay Squires, President and C.E.O. of the Gay Community Center of Richmond, said although Sen. Bill 66 was the primary focus of the L.G.B.T. community’s efforts, its defeat has not affected the resolve of the community to achieve equal rights in state workplaces.
“Sen. Donald McEachin introduced the bill in the Senate and did a tremendous job both in crafting the language of the bill and keeping an eye on it as it progressed in the senate. And it passed in the senate, and that’s the first time that’s ever happened for a bill like this,” said Squires. “Unfortunately, the house basically killed it out right, so ultimately these protections weren’t put into law. But, we’re hopeful. I think everyone in the community is hopeful and whatever capacity they hold we’re hopeful next year will be different - and if not next year than the year after that. I guess what you should take away from that is that, I think people in this community are going to keep trying until these goals are met.”
As far as Willis is concerned progress was made, but there’s still more Virginia needs to advance and protect civil rights.
“All in all this was not a bad Virginia General Assembly," he said. 'The fact that legislators thought broadly enough to get over their anti-reproductive rights feelings and vote for the first amendment in passing the pro-choice license plate was a good sign. It’s not something that’s a traumatic leap forward, but it’s a good sign that legislators were able to think about constitutional rights while passing a bill and putting aside their own individual ideologies. So, all in all this was not a bad session as Virginia goes for civil liberties. Although we’re still disappointed that we don’t seem to be able to make any progress at all in terms of gay and lesbian rights in Virginia. That’s yet to come.”