Senator Don McEachin talks LGBTQ issues ahead of the 2016 General Assembly Session
Virginia Senator Don McEachin (D-9) gave GayRVA a bit of insight into the upcoming 2016 General Assembly session, one in which he promised LGBTQ issues will play a role.
One issue in particular which continues to make headlines, religious liberties, is something McEachin (top image, center) said he and his party are ready to fight against.
“The other side of the aisle has made some statements about their attempts to allow discrimination under the guise of religious liberty,” said McEachin in a phone interview.
Religious freedom laws, like those almost passed in Arizona in February, 2014, and Indiana late last year, have been called discriminatory by civil rights and LGBTQ advocacy groups and have lead to disastrous PR incidents for the governments responsible for their passage.
“It is paramount that the religious liberties of all Virginians be respected,” wrote Virginia House Speaker Bill Howell in a statement released on his website in July of this year. “While we must and will abide by the law, we must also ensure that the God-given and Constitutionally-guaranteed right to the free exercise of religion is not diminished in light of this ruling. The House of Delegates will fight to uphold this principle.”
Republican Del. C. Todd Gilbert echoed those concerns in an interview with the Times-Dispatch saying “protections of religious liberties will be “the primary focus” for the House GOP next year.”
But McEachin vowed to combat these measures, pointing to out-of-state cases where bakeries or photographers have denied services to customers having a same-sex wedding.
“You can’t discriminate, you can’t pick and chose your customers,” he said. “If you’re gonna use our streets and use our infrastructure, these things that all of us built together – Black, White, straight, or gay – you don’t get the right to pick your clients like that.”
McEachin has been a long-time ally of the LGBTQ community and has been outspoken on equality issues and sponsored or co-sponsored numerous pro-LGBTQ bills over the years. He even took steps to bring up the issue unprompted during a hearing for a new judge on the Virginia State Supreme Court earlier this month.
The GOP selected candidate, Judge Rossie Alston Jr., was being questioned by a panel featuring McEachin. The Senator asked Alston if there were any circumstances where someone engaged in interstate commerce could engage in racial discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.
Alston “of course” said no.
McEachin then asked him the same question, but for LGBTQ discrimination.
Alston responded, “There is no reason whatsoever why any person in the United States of America should be denied equal privileges that we all enjoy under the law,” according to the New Civil Rights Movement.
“I was pleased to hear that answer, and I did hear that I caused some murmuring among my Republican colleagues in the house,” said McEachin.
“It’s always good to (cause a) murmur,” he joked.
McEachin’s comparison between the Black civil rights struggle and the current struggle faced by LGBTQs today is not one he takes lightly. Himself an African American, McEachin said he doesn’t see the issues as equivalent, but equally important.
“Each has their own set of struggles, and each stands on their own and neither diminishes the other, that’s how I look at it,” he said. “It’s sad, especially with the transgender issue where people aren’t comfortable in their own bodies, I can’t imagine what that must be like to feel [like that].”
As for the upcoming 2016 General Assembly session, the Senator said he sees LGBTQ issues playing a large role with everything from updating the state code to align with the SCTOUS same-sex marriage ruling to changes in tax rules, or what he called “maintenance work.”
Beyond cleaning up the legal-shop that is our state code, adoption laws dealing with LGBTQs are “absolutely” going to be discussed this session, McEachin said.
Though he couldn’t comment on specifics, he said “the battle lines are drawn along the adoption frontier.”
“Folks know how they feel about it, [and] how they need to vote about it. Putting together legislation around it is easily done,” he said. “But passage is always a challenge.”
Another hurdle which is sure to plague equality legislation during the 2016 session is the 21-19 split of the state senate, leaving most pro-LGBTQ legislation dead before it even hits the House floor.
With a number of senate seats up for grabs in this 2015 election, McEachin is hopeful his party will be able to return to a Democratic majority.
“I’m not saying 20/20, I’m saying 21 or more. It’s critical” he said. “We don’t know who the next Lt. Gov is gonna be… we need to make sure we’ve got those 21 democrats so that Lt. Gov. is a presiding officers, not a tie breaker.”
Whether or not we’ll gain seats is still unknown, but McEachin said the key to equality issues coming up this session will be the communities involvement and willingness to get involved.
“Be vigilant,” he said. “Come down and see us and come down and work with us.”
Editors note: this story originally misquoted McEachin as saying the “Lt. Gov. is a presiding officers, not a tyrant.” – He in fact said “tie breaker” and the article has been updated to reflect that.
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