Labor & Work-Life Issues

Virginia Attorney General Tells Public Colleges to Drop Gay-Rights Protections

March 07, 2010

The attorney general of Virginia, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, has sent a letter to the state's public universities and colleges asking them to eliminate campus policies that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Mr. Cuccinelli. a Republican who took office in January, wrote that only the state's General Assembly can extend legal protection to gay state employees, The Washington Post reported on Friday. However, a spokeswoman at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia said the state's public colleges have historically had the autonomy to make policy decisions like this one. The council makes recommendations to the governor and General Assembly on public-policy issues related to higher education.

In the letter, dated Thursday, Mr. Cuccinelli wrote: "It is my advice 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 Virginia every public college has a different code outlining its relationship with the state concerning governance. Because the codes are vague, the institutions are generally granted much autonomy, said Kirsten Nelson, the spokeswoman for the higher-education council. Only the governor and the General Assembly can change the codes, and "without changes, it is assumed that it is the will of the General Assembly that the institutions retain control of their governance," Ms. Nelson wrote in an e-mail message to The Chronicle.

Robert M. O'Neil, a former president of the University of Virginia and director of the university's Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said he doesn't think the attorney general's objections are credible. Mr. O'Neil explained that although public institutions do not have explicit authority to extend protection for sexual orientation, "the passage of time and universality of commitment seem to have simply have implied such authority."

The Chronicle contacted several colleges and universities in Virginia that have policies to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. A spokeswoman at the University of Virginia said that the attorney general's letter was "privileged and confidential" and that questions about it should be addressed to the attorney general. Spokesmen at the College of William and Mary and James Madison University said they were in the process of reviewing the letter, and a spokesman at George Mason University would not comment.

The attorney general's office did not return a call and an e-mail message seeking comment.

Democrats in Virginia's State Senate denounced Mr. Cuccinelli's letter on Friday and called his actions "unconscionable" in a written statement. The state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent letters to all of the institutions that received Mr. Cuccinelli's letter. The ACLU letter advised colleges that the U.S. Constitution requires the institutions to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.