By Liz Seaton
NCLR State Policy Director
Yesterday, the Virginia Board of Juvenile Justice voted 5-1 to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in the juvenile correctional facilities over which it has broad oversight. Eight percent of boys and 23 percent of girls in juvenile detention identify their sexuality as other than heterosexual, so this is an important step forward to protect their rights.
This is the second time that the Board has voted this way over the advice of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who argues that no one other than the legislature has the power to designate protected classes, including for purposes of administrative agency non-discrimination policies. Cuccinelli has made it his business to do everything he can to block steps towards equality under the law for LGBTQ people, and to roll back even minimal protective policies where they have existed, such as at state colleges and universities in the Commonwealth.
The Board’s action is significant not just because more than 800 youth are detained in these facilities, many of whom are vulnerable and in need of protection, but because the Board has stepped up to assert through its actions that the Attorney General is simply wrong in his opinion. Nothing in Virginia law prevents state agencies from adopting regulations and policies of non-discrimination.
NCLR and others made this same argument in a different context just a few months ago when we advocated for the Virginia Board of Social Services to adopt policies of non-discrimination in regulations governing child placement agencies. Cuccinelli, telling the Social Service Board that it did not have the authority to tell state-licensed agencies that they may not discriminate against children in need of parents and prospective parents who are willing to give them forever homes. Despite the clear needs of children waiting for homes—and in light of the news that there are people willing to foster and adopt them—the Social Service Board members appear to have been cowed by Cuccinelli.
The next steps in Virginia? Governor Bob McDonnell’s office says it is reviewing the Juvenile Justice Board’s actions. On the child placement front, anti-LGBTQ groups hope to have state legislation introduced to enshrine the right of child placement agencies to discriminate in the state code. If you, like me, are sighing in disgust, I will tell you that a bright ray of hope is available through the stalwart work of Equality Virginia. Executive Director James Parrish is fighting back, explaining in a recent article exactly how Virginia law needs to change for the better.
At NCLR, we will do all we can to help Equality Virginia and other Virginians continue to seek equality under the law. For the children who need safe care, for the kids who need forever homes, for our families to be able to love and protect each other, we need to help states and localities to fight bad measures and advance good ones. It’s time to make the Commonwealth of Virginia a safer and more just state for LGBTQ people.