By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director

Legislators, old and new, convene today in Richmond for the 2012 Virginia General Assembly, and they will almost certainly make this session the most challenging in decades.  That’s because a new crop of social conservatives swept into office in unprecedented numbers in November and is prepared to push through its agenda taking aim at reproductive freedom, religious liberty, and immigrants’ rights.
In recent years the Senate, a more prudent and measured chamber, helped kill some of the most egregious threats to our fundamental rights.  But with political power in the Senate now uncertain, there may not be anyone at the flood gates to block the flow of bills jeopardizing our constitutional liberties.
For the last six years the Senate – with the exception of last year’s horrendous abortion regulation bill – has blocked all the anti-choice legislation sent from the House.  Anti-choice bills that failed during that time are likely to be (and some already have been) introduced again this session.  For example, Del. Bob Marshall has introduced a “personhood” bill that would grant fertilized eggs the status of a person under Virginia law.  Marshall’s proposal also creates a trigger to outlaw all abortions should the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedent establishing the right to an abortion be overturned.  Unable to ban abortions, anti-choice legislators aim to make it more difficult and costly for women to obtain the medical procedure by imposing new requirements, such as a mandatory ultrasound or fetal anesthesia.
Anti-immigrant fever hit legislators during the 2007 and 2008 sessions when over one hundred bills targeting immigrants’ rights were introduced.  Purportedly aimed at undocumented immigrants, most of the bills would have allowed for official discrimination against all immigrants in the Commonwealth, with particularly dire consequences for Latinos.  The bills hit on a wide range of issues, including housing, employment, spoken language, education, and due process.  We anticipate seeing some of those same bills revived this year.
Additionally, legislators will be taking steps to ensure that government-sponsored prayer is allowed in school and at government functions.  While we would prefer to leave it to parents and religious institutions to teach and advise children on matters of faith, they seek to have government dictate which religious principles should be promoted.  We also expect to see bills allowing the government to indirectly subsidize parochial schools.
As part of a nationwide trend, mandatory voter ID bills are likely to be a hot topic this session.  While introduced as measures to prevent individual voter fraud—which studies have shown is non-existent—voter ID bills disproportionately suppress low-income, elderly, and minority voters.
The threats may be numerous and seem overwhelming, but all hope is not lost.  If supporters of civil liberties and civil rights stand together, we can have a strong voice in the General Assembly.  Together we can defend, and perhaps even advance, the liberties afforded to us by the Constitution during this General Assembly.
Constituent communications—email, telephone calls, or letters—can have a significant impact on what elected officials do.  So if you’re willing to take a minute to let your delegate and senator know that you care about these issues and want them to protect our rights, please sign up to become an ACLU of Virginia Grassroots Lobbyist.  We’ll send you timely action alerts with talking points and contact information for the appropriate legislators so that you can help make a difference.
The ACLU has never backed down from fighting for constitutional rights, even in the toughest political environments, and that has served us well over the years.  Join us today in our fight at the Virginia General Assembly!
Note: Read our 2012 General Assembly Preview (pdf) to learn more about the bills we expect to see this session.