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Virginia's public colleges and universities may be able to ban anti-gay discrimination after all.

Days after the state's attorney general told the institutions that they couldn't ban discrimination against gay people, the governor said they could. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's announcement came amid growing student protests about the attorney general's policy and strong statements by some college officials that suggested they would ignore the attorney general. Both McDonnell and the attorney general, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, are Republicans.

Cuccinelli infuriated many students and faculty members in Virginia when they learned from The Washington Post that he had sent a letter to public colleges and universities last week saying that they lacked the authority to bar discrimination against gay people as part of their anti-bias policies. Cuccinelli argued that only the General Assembly could bar such discrimination and since it had not done so, the public colleges couldn't.

If that logic held, many public colleges would have been forced to change their anti-bias policies, which do in fact include sexual orientation among factors on which discrimination is banned.

On Wednesday, as 1,000 students from Virginia Commonwealth University held a protest of the attorney general's letter, the governor weighed in. He issued an "executive directive" in which he said: "The Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution prohibits discrimination without a rational basis against any class of persons. Discrimination based on factors such as one’s sexual orientation or parental status violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. Therefore, discrimination against enumerated classes of persons set forth in the Virginia Human Rights Act or discrimination against any class of persons without a rational basis is prohibited."

Other parts of the directive referenced state employees, not students, leading some to suggest that the governor's action protected only the colleges' employment policies and not the treatment of students. But a spokesman for the governor told the Associated Press that the governor's action was intended to allow colleges to keep their current policies (which do ban discrimination against gay students and employees).

John Casteen, president of the University of Virginia, issued a statement to all students and faculty members praising the governor's action and saying that he believed it covered employees and students alike.

Before the governor acted, another president -- Taylor Reveley of the College of William and Mary -- issued a statement that said that his institution would not stop protecting groups of people from bias.

He wrote: "William and Mary neither discriminates against people nor tolerates discrimination on our campus. Those of us at W&M insist that members of our campus community be people of integrity who have both the capacity to meet their responsibilities to the university and the willingness to engage others with civility and respect. We do not insist, however, that members of our community possess any other particular characteristics, whether denominated in race, religion, nationality, sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or any other of the myriad personal characteristics that differentiate human beings.

"We certainly do not discriminate against people on such grounds, or tolerate discrimination against them. This is the way we live our lives together at William and Mary, because we believe this is the way we should live our lives together. This is not going to change."

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