By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director
With one week left until the 2011 General Assembly session begins, we are, as usual, apprehensive about Virginia’s legislators coming to town.  Throughout the year we meet with elected officials and other like-minded advocacy groups and we attend legislative meetings to prepare for the session, but we can never be absolutely certain of what will happen once the session starts.
Here, though, is some of what we expect to see:
Of particular concern this year is the renewed anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the state.  After a cooling trend for the last couple of years, the national controversy over Arizona’s new anti-immigrant law has put the issue back on the front burner in Virginia.  Similar to 2008, when more than 100 anti-immigrant bills were introduced in Virginia, we are expecting a multitude of bills that deny rights to all immigrants in a misguided attempt to weed out those who may be undocumented.
We also expect to see Del. Bob Marshall’s bill to prohibit gay men and lesbians from serving in the Virginia National Guard—a reaction to the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”   Del. Joe Morrissey has already announced he’ll counter Marshall’s bill with one that neutralizes its effect.  It should be quite a showdown.
Additionally, we expect legislation dealing with privacy and technology issues, in particular the right of police to place GPS tracking devices on vehicles without a warrant and the use of DNA searches of family members during criminal investigations.  Like the Marshall-Morrissey conflict, we could see bills on both sides of these issues.
Our ability to prevent the erosion of reproductive rights sometimes goes unnoticed these days, but that is only because of Herculean efforts by the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and our pro-choice allies.  Truth be told, reproductive rights hang by a thread in Virginia, as anti-choice bills typically pass the House and then fail by only one or two votes in a Senate committee.
On the proactive side, we have joined forces with a broad coalition of civil rights and religious groups to advocate for reform of Virginia’s antiquated felon disenfranchisement law.  We’ll be supporting efforts to prohibit discrimination against gay men and lesbians employed by the state, as well as changes to election laws to make it easier for voters to participate in the democratic process.
One thing we cannot prepare for is the creative ways in which members of the Virginia General Assembly try to increase the powers of the government to censor speech and threaten religious liberty.  We almost never see a session without one to two surprise attempts to infringe on these fundamental rights.
As you can see, it’s a tall order to defend and advance civil liberties during the Virginia General Assembly.  We’ll have staff at the General Assembly every single day, all day long, but the best way for us to effect legislative outcomes is for supporters of civil liberties to get involved by calling or writing their representatives just before critical votes are cast.
Happily, we have an easy way for you to do that.  It’s called ACLU grassroots lobbying, and all you need to do is to sign up.  Once you do, we’ll send action alerts to your email with all the necessary information—who to contact, our position, and talking points—so you can simply contact legislators and let your voice be heard! Sign up today.