When the Attorney General of Virginia, Kenneth Cuccinelli, declared recently that state colleges and universities had no legal right to ban employment discrimination of the basis of sexual orientation, we were reminded once again of the fragility of our basic civil and human rights. Enshrined in national scripture may be the words “all men are created equal” but we have known since the very moment those words were written how simultaneously world-changing and meaningless they are. One election, one decision by a B-list politician, and poof…gone.
After much outcry across the state, including by many staff, faculty, and students at the University of Virginia (my employer), Gov. Bob McDonnell issued a surprisingly robust rebuke to his attorney general. In a publicly released statement, the governor overruled his AG, and asserted, “Employment discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated by this Administration.” In one passage, he even declared:
The Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution prohibits discrimination without a rational basis against any class of persons. Discrimination based on factors such as one’s sexual orientation or parental status violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution.
When this arrived in my inbox I was flabbergasted. Did this graduate of Pat Roberston’s Regent University just state that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violates the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution? Though Virginia continues to maintain one of the most hostile legal environments for gays and lesbians in the country, this strikes me as a hugely significant development, and the basis for much potential good with sweeping implications for all sorts of matters, including marriage equality. But it’s not yet law. This was just a public statement from the governor, and the state legislature has still refused to enact anti-discrimination protection on the basis of sexual orientation into law. Our rights are precious, fragile things.