UPDATED: Senator claims McDonnell created atmosphere conducive to Westboro anti-gay protest
A state senator alleged today that actions by Gov. Bob McDonnell on gay rights issues have helped "create an atmosphere" that has led to planned protests tomorrow at the Virginia Holocaust Museum and other locations by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, the much-criticized Kansas church that stages protests at the funerals of U.S. soldiers and elsewhere against expansion of rights to homosexuals.
Speaking at a news conference hosted this morning by Equality Virginia to highlight support for a bill that would extend legal protections against discrimination to gay state employees, Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) said he thinks there has been a substantive change for gay citizens in Virginia since McDonnell took office Jan. 16.
McDonnell has said his administration will not discriminate, but issued a non-discrimination executive order that did not include protections on the basis of sexual orientation, a departure from the orders issued by his two Democratic predecessors.
"I think there is an atmosphere that's being created that has been regrettably caused by the McDonnell administration. It's been exacerbated by the issuance of the executive order, where what we have is we have so-called church members coming to Richmond tomorrow to protest and picket and say things about the Jewish community and the gay community," McEachin said.
Asked afterward to confirm his belief that McDonnell's actions have helped spur the protests, McEachin said, "Absolutely, I do." And when told that the governor might be offended by that idea, McEachin said, "I'm offended by some of the things he's done."
Tucker Martin, a spokesman for McDonnell, called McEachin's comment "shameful" and said they were not worthy of further response. As attorney general, McDonnell warned members of the Westboro church that they could be arrested if they disrupted the funerals of victims of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech.
McEachin was joined by other legislators and representatives of a variety of groups, including the American Association of University Professors, the AARP and the Virginia Governmental Employees Association, which are pushing for the adoption of his bill.
McDonnell has said he believes only the General Assembly can extend legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation, and executive orders issued by Gov. Mark Warner (D) and Gov. Tim Kaine were therefore illegal. McEachin said he thus "took the governor" at his word and sponsored a bill to do just that. An identical measure sponsored by Del. Adam Ebbin (D) has been killed by a subcommittee of the House; McEachin's bill is scheduled to be heard by the same subcommittee tomorrow.
At the news conference, the advocates noted that some in Maryland are now urging Northrop Grumman to reject Virginia as a site for its new headquarters because of the state's position on gay rights.
At a separate news conference this morning, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) responded to the idea that the defense giant might be swayed by such pressure: "I thought it was a bit of a cheap shot. You can't control what other people do. You can only control what you do. We're not going to engage in those kind of cheap shots. Everybody knows our policy. Our policy is we don't support discrimination against anybody for any reason."
He continued: "The governor has been very clear about that, and then what policies individual companies have is up to them. We're making our case to Northrop Grumman about why we think Virginia is the best place for them to be, and if that's the best shot our friends in Maryland have to take against us, then it's okay. We're going to try to take the high road and keep our approach positive."
UPDATE 4:22 p.m.: McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin has added a bit more about the governor's position on Tuesday's Westboro church protests in Richmond: "The Governor took an oath to enforce the laws of the Commonwealth consistent with the Constitutions of the United States and Virginia. While this group does have a First Amendment right to free speech, all relevant state laws will be strictly enforced. The Governor finds this group's actions and message offensive. In 2007, as Attorney General of Virginia, he took action to help prevent this group from protesting funerals following the tragedy at Virginia Tech."
March 1, 2010; 3:43 PM ET
Categories: Robert F. McDonnell , Rosalind Helderman , State Senate
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