RICHMOND -- Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II has urged the state's public colleges and universities to rescind policies that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, arguing in a letter sent to each school that their boards of visitors had no legal authority to adopt such statements.
In his most aggressive initiative on conservative social issues since taking office in January, Cuccinelli (R) wrote in the letter sent Thursday that only the General Assembly can extend legal protections to gay state employees, students and others -- a move the legislature has repeatedly declined to take as recently as this week.
The letter demonstrates an increasing split in the region's policies on issues related to sexual orientation. It comes in the same week that the District began issuing marriage licenses for gay couples and a week after Maryland's attorney general announced that his state will recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Cuccinelli's move has dismayed students and faculty members. It suggests that Cuccinelli intends to take a harder line with the state's university system, where liberal academics have long coexisted uneasily with state leaders in Richmond.
"It is my advice that the law and public policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia prohibit a college or university from including 'sexual orientation,' 'gender identity,' 'gender expression,' or like classification as a protected class within its non-discrimination policy absent specific authorization from the General Assembly," he wrote in the letter.
Colleges that have included such language in policies that govern university hiring and admissions -- which include all of Virginia's largest schools -- have done so "without proper authority" and should "take appropriate actions to bring their policies in conformance with the law and public policy of Virginia," Cuccinelli wrote.
Official representatives of several universities, including the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, the College of William and Mary and George Mason University, reacted cautiously to the letter, declining to comment and indicating that their governing boards would examine the issue.
But some individual college board members and others said Cuccinelli's action would be highly controversial on campuses, where many argue that such policies are necessary to attract top students and faculty.
"What he's saying is reprehensible," said Vincent F. Callahan Jr., a former Republican member of the House of Delegates who serves on George Mason's board of visitors. "I don't know what he's doing, opening up this can of worms."
It is not entirely clear what recourse Cuccinelli would have if the universities do not follow his advice. Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, general counsel to the gay rights group Equality Virginia and a former deputy attorney general, urged boards to seek a second opinion. "They call it advice for a reason," she said.
Former attorney general Jerry Kilgore (R) agreed it would be difficult for Cuccinelli to enforce his opinion without pursuing court action. But he said college visitors swear an oath to abide by state statute.
"Board members are required to follow the law," Kilgore said. "And he's telling them what the law is."