The Christopher Newport University board voted Friday to add sexual orientation to the list of qualities on which the Newport News, Va., institution bars discrimination in admissions and employment decisions. The move follows a five-year campaign by students and professors, who previously saw the board table resolutions to expand the equity policy.
In November, several hundred students showed up at a meeting of the Board of Visitors and greeted arriving board members at committee meetings with a silent protest. The board then agreed to reconsider the issue this month, leading to Friday's vote.
The student government led a lobbying campaign on behalf of the change. "This is all about protecting students and protecting faculty and staff, regardless of their sexual orientation, so that everyone on campus feels safe," said Molly Buckley, student body president. "This is a somewhat conservative campus and some gay students say that they don't feel safe speaking up in the classroom or walking at night."
Buckley noted that Virginia is a conservative state on social issues and that voters there just backed a measure to strengthen the ban on gay marriage. "We needed to tell the board that this isn't about gay marriage. It's about protecting students and faculty," Buckley said.
Virginia's attorney general, Robert M. McDonnell, however, thinks the gay marriage ban is relevant. He wrote this month to the Christopher Newport board saying that it would not be legal for the university (or other public institutions in the state, which have done the same thing) to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation.
McDonnell argued that under Virginia law, divisions of the state cannot adopt their own policies on issues on which the General Assembly has taken its own position. McDonnell noted that Virginia law bars discrimination based on a variety of measures, but not sexual orientation. He also noted the gay marriage vote and the failure of 17 measures introduced in the legislature since 1997 to bar anti-gay bias. In light of this record, he said, the state has a position that agencies cannot bar discrimination based on sexual orientation.
A spokeswoman for the university said that the board took the letter under advisement, but did not feel bound by it. The spokeswoman noted that Gov. Tim Kaine issued an executive order  in which he barred the agencies he supervises from discrimination based on sexual orientation (among other qualities). The spokeswoman said that the board discussion of the issue was closed to the public, so she did not have details on the board's thinking, except that the vote was unanimous.
Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia, a gay-rights group, said that someone trying to challenge the anti-bias rules at a public university could cite the attorney general's views, but that other public universities had similar policies in place for years, without difficulty. "We believe universities do have the authority to set policy for internal purposes," she said.