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Virginia HBCUs Struggle With Legal Opinion That Bars Protection for Gays

RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia’s historically Black colleges and universities are reeling after a controversial legal opinion by Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli that would invalidate any policy erected by public colleges that bans discrimination against gays and lesbians.

“This is having a chilling effect,” says Dr. Charles Ford, a professor of history and interim associate dean of the College of Arts and Science at Norfolk State University. He says historically Black schools will be hardest hit if the opinion keeps away private foundation and grant money.

Cuccinelli issued his opinion just days after the state Legislature committee killed a bill to extend anti-discrimination rights to gay state workers. The issue is politically charged because the discrimination issue had been taken up in the Legislature after the state’s conservative governor, Robert McDonnell, refused to include gays in an executive order prohibiting discrimination against state workers.

McDonnell’s two Democratic predecessors, former Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, included gays in their anti-discrimination executive orders. During his campaign last year, the socially conservative McDonnell was criticized for a graduate thesis he wrote saying that the government should give married heterosexual couples more rights than “cohabiters, homosexuals and fornicators.”

Public schools including the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and William and Mary, along with historically Black public institutions such as Norfolk State, all have policies banning discrimination on a basis of sexual orientation.

Administration, faculty and students are meeting on many campuses to respond to Cuccinelli’s opinion, which is not legally binding but carries a lot of weight.

“We just can’t ignore it. Our legal counsel answers to the president of the school and to the attorney general,” says Dr. Pat Cummings, a professor of French and international relations at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

A final decision rests with the school’s board of visitors, says VCU spokeswoman Pam Lepley. It is uncertain what would happen if the schools chose to ignore the attorney general’s opinion.

Norfolk State has had a policy protecting gay students and faculty from discrimination since 2000 and has had a college-sanctioned club for gay, lesbian and transgender students since 2005, Ford says.

“We were really starting to make progress on this and now we’re set back,” he says.

The schools will be especially hurt because Norfolk State has agreements with other schools to let honors students attend classes elsewhere and receives money from private grants and foundations. In most cases, these groups and programs have policies calling for nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

If Cuccinelli’s policy makes outsiders less likely to fund Virginia public colleges, historically Black schools will be hurt disproportionately, he says. “We just don’t have the resources of the University of Virginia,” he notes.

Virginia public colleges likewise will find it harder to recruit talented faculty nationally, says Martin Synder, director of external relations at the American Association of University Professors in Washington, D.C. “The effects could last for years,” he says.

“The situation is absurd but frightening,” says Cummings. “If it’s this group this time, who’s the group going to be the next time?”

A spokesman for Cuccinelli declined comment but said, “We will be reviewing the situation, going forward.”

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