Gay rights victories in conservative Virginia

Gay rights proponents have scored victories in the conservative-leaning Virginia house of delegates on measures involving access to health insurance and home loans. The house, which last week passed a bill reaffirming the state's ban on gay marriage, narrowly passed legislation Monday that would allow employers to offer group insurance benefits to gay partners who live together. It rejected a measure seeking to make state mortgage loans available only to married heterosexuals or blood relatives.

The health insurance bill, sponsored by Republican delegate James Dillard, passed 50-49 with the support of numerous Republicans and now advances to the state senate, which Republicans control 24-16. Republican delegate Richard Black's bill to exclude same-sex and unmarried couples from Virginia Housing Development Authority loans failed to advance on a vote of 54-44. "Virginia families will find it ironic that the same body of legislators voted in favor of a ban on civil unions but continues to give away those rights and privileges that go along with a traditional marriage," said Victoria Cobb, spokeswoman for the Family Foundation, a conservative group.

But Dyana Mason, executive director of gay rights group Equality Virginia, praised the house for recognizing how the housing bill could affect low-income families and other groups. The state used to require Virginia Housing Development Authority borrowers to be married or related by blood, but the authority repealed the measure last year. Black had blamed lobbying by gay activists for the demise of the "family rule," which he said encouraged stable family relationships and reduced the risks of lending.

But fellow Republican delegate Terrie Suit said the measure would hurt those in greatest need of housing assistance. She cited a poor mother who wanted to buy a home with the mother of her imprisoned boyfriend. "That might constitute an irregular relationship to a couple of people on the floor of this house, but I thought that that was admirable," she said. "They did not get to buy their home. And it broke my heart."

The other bill would allow companies with group insurance policies to offer benefits to gay partners, unmarried heterosexual partners, siblings, parents, and any other individuals living with the insured person. Virginia law currently restricts group policy coverage to spouses and dependent children.

Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, supports allowing nontraditional couples to access state mortgage loans and giving employers the right to offer benefits to domestic partners, spokeswoman Ellen Qualls said. "The governor views it as an economic development issue," she said. "There are companies that have indicated a desire for the measure so that they can attract and retain the good workers."

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