By protecting on basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, City Council went farther than current Virginia state law — a decision which has uncertain legal implications.

The Richmond City Council adopted a Human Rights Commission on Monday, June 11. This commission would create greater representation when human rights violations are committed in the city. In addition to the classes protected under the Virginia Human Rights Act, the newly certified commission will specifically investigate discrimination claims on the basis of “sexual orientation, transgender status, [and] gender identity.” Richmond will join several other Virginia cities with LGBTQ protection, including Newport NewsVirginia BeachCharlottesville, and Alexandria.

The 13-member board would include 11 adult members, six appointed by the council and five appointed by the Mayor; along with two non-voting youth members, one appointed by the council and one appointed by the Mayor. Some of the responsibilities of this commission will include advising city council and the mayor on cases, providing assistance to victims by pointing them to proper agencies with which to file a complaint, and providing public forums to address their concerns. In a way, the commission will act as a liaison between city council and the mayor, and all of those marginalized within our community.

Despite City Council’s establishment of this commission, there’s some question as to whether the LGBTQ protections will be legally enforceable. Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means it operates under a rule originally stated by former US Circuit Court Justice John Forrest Dillon. The Dillon Rule states that local governance must yield to statewide authority, unless the General Assembly grants jurisdiction to the local governance. Since, under current statewide classifications, sexuality and gender identity are not protected classes, the LGBTQ protections ensured by the city’s Human Rights Commission may not be legally enforceable.

Speaking to Style Weekly, Councilman Parker Agelasto explained that it was important to Council to include these protections regardless. “What we’re trying to do is establish an environment in which people feel comfortable in the city of Richmond,” Agelasto told Style. “If [LGBTQ people] are not comfortable, we as a governing body can give them an outlet to express that to us and give us a chance to do better.”

Mayor Stoney also gave his support to these protections, telling Style, ”We need to ensure that no matter who you are, where you come from, where you live, how you worship or who you love, that you have the opportunity to live, work and play in a welcoming, diverse and inclusive city where you can be protected from discrimination.”

The commission cannot fully form, however, until the city attorney signs off on it, which has yet to occur — instead, City Council chose to approve changes to the protected classes covered by the commission before receiving approval from the city attorney. It’s uncertain how this will play out now that Council has approved the commission; however, the fact that both City Council and Mayor Stoney have approved of the measure certainly sends a strong positive message to Richmond’s LGBTQ community.

By Jo Rozycki and Marilyn Drew Necci