The opportunities in Virginia are big. Our ability to seize them? Even bigger.
Check out our 2023 Annual Report, “Seize the Opportunity,” and join the ACLU of Virginia in the fight!
Table of Content
In the Courts
This year, we had a number of blockbuster cases – including not one, but two, arguments in front of the Supreme Court of Virginia.
Both times that our lawyers appeared in the highest court in the Commonwealth, it was to demand the immediate release of people whom we believed the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) were continuing to unlawfully incarcerate even after they had earned their release.
On June 7, 2023, our attorneys successfully argued before the Supreme Court of Virginia on behalf of a southwest Virginian named Mr. Steven Prease – and on July 13, our staff was there to see him finally reunite with his family.
Mr. Prease is just one of hundreds of people who did the hard work to earn his release through something called the earned sentence credit program, and he’s one of four clients on whose behalf we’ve sued.
We’ve also been hard at work this year on two more cases related to our “People. Not Prisons” initiative. One is on behalf of visually impaired and blind men who are being denied access to services and programs while incarcerated in VADOC facilities because of their disability.
The other is a novel case on behalf of people with felony convictions who are being denied the right to vote. It rests on a law dating back to Reconstruction following the Civil War. At that time, Virginia was intent on keeping newly freed Black voters away from the ballot box, and targeted Black Virginians with a growing number of criminal convictions – then stripped people with criminal convictions of their right to vote.
Our lawsuit argues that the law readmitting Virginia after the Civil War also prohibits people with modern felony convictions from being stripped of their right to vote today. It’s not just an unusual case: it’s the first of its kind.
Read more about it in The Washington Post, the AP, The Hill, and other outlets here, and while you’re at it, check out our Second Chance storytelling project featuring portraits of formerly incarcerated Virginians here.
In the Streets
The courts aren’t the only place our legal experts have been busy this year. School boards across the Commonwealth have been purging so-called “sexually explicit” books over the last year, hindering students’ learning and impinging on their First Amendment rights in the process.
These bans disproportionately target books about the experiences of LGBTQ+ people and people of color. But students should be able to see themselves reflected in their libraries; they also should be able to learn from people who aren’t like them.
After all, it would both be discriminatory and defy common sense to pretend Virginia students aren’t living in a world with Black, Brown, and LGBTQ+ peers, teachers and family members.
That’s why ACLU-VA policy analysts and organizers have been showing up at the request of residents at their school board meetings across Virginia this year. Alongside local parent groups and statewide partners like Equality Virginia and He She Ze and We, we've supported community members who want to stop censorship in Spotsylvania, Virginia Beach, and Hanover County.
Our communications, policy and organizing experts have helped hundreds of local parents and students oppose book bans, get their stories in front of the media, and testify in front of their school boards. We’ve held community education sessions for parents and teachers, joined “read-ins,” and used polling data to coordinate with our partners about how to counter the disinformation.
Grassroots engagement is crucial to safeguarding our civil liberties. Every community needs representatives who will work with parents, teachers, and librarians to create truthful and comprehensive learning environments where all students can see themselves reflected. We’ll be there every step of the way to make sure that’s what they get.
In the Voting Booth
Every seat was up for grabs in Virginia this year, and a redistricting process created more competitive seats than ever before. That meant there was an unprecedented opportunity to put people in office who will best serve Virginians on many of the issues we care most about – issues like reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and the right to vote.
With 140 General Assembly seats in the balance, we knew we needed to seize the opportunity. For the first time ever, the ACLU of Virginia got involved in local school board races and key races in the House and Senate.
So voters could see who believed in bettering Virginia – and who believed in moving us backwards – our policy experts sent questionnaires to 114 candidates asking whether they would oppose classroom censorship and protect LGBTQ+ rights.
We created a website in partnership with the National ACLU with candidates’ answers, and sent out targeted digital ACLU ads and direct mailers. This election called for public education about why a 15-week ban on abortion is not the compromise position many candidates try to make it seem like – and our team was ready to seize the opportunity to provide it.
By Election Day, our outreach had reached approximately 3.3 million Virginians. Although we’re nonpartisan and don’t support any individual candidates, we even visited people’s homes to make sure they had access to candidates’ responses about a 15-week abortion ban.
Of course, it was a two-way street: you may have seen the videos of real Virginians sharing their voting stories with us, too. This kind of voter-to-voter communication was key to making sure Virginians didn’t leave issues like abortion access to voters with whom they profoundly disagree.
In key districts like Virginia Beach and Henrico, our organizers worked with local partners like He, She, Ze and We to convene voters to volunteer to get family, friends, and neighbors to the polls. All told, this year’s election really showcased the strength of our integrated advocacy model: one that brings together policy and communications expertise with organizing muscle to reach communities and make a real difference.
Protecting our rights depends on getting the right people in office. We plan to seize every opportunity in the voting booth, the courts and the streets to do just that.
Many of the battles we’ve been fighting over the last year will continue into the coming one.
Perhaps nowhere is that more true than in our schools. This year, according to the American Library Association, Virginia ranked second in the nation for the number of titles challenged.
But classroom censorship is just one part of the assault that Virginia’s young people are facing – especially LGBTQ+ young people. The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has replaced model policies for how schools must best support transgender and nonbinary students with policies that defy evidence-based best practices and threaten to cause real harm.
Some schools have implemented them; others have resisted. We’ve been in touch with 18 districts whose community members are looking for guidance on how their school board can meet their obligation to create safe, inclusive school environments for all students.
We worked with partners like the Virginia Education Association and Equality Virginia to co-host info sessions for hundreds of parents, students and teachers, and we placed op-eds from both doctors and parents about why the VDOE 2023 model policies are so harmful.
We’ll keep working hard to ensure schools support transgender and nonbinary students, no matter their zip code. But we’ll need your help to do it: this year, join us in getting involved at the school board level, and advocate against the VDOE’s harmful model policies.
Use our VDOE Action Hub to stay up to date. This fight will take all of us – together.
In Immigrant Detention Centers
We launched a brand-new Immigrants’ Rights project in 2023, and we’ll be hard at work this year and in the upcoming year on its first class-action lawsuit.
Virginia’s immigrant population has more than tripled over the past 30 years. Too many immigrants face unacceptable violations of their civil rights in our Commonwealth, and medical neglect, lack of access to counsel, and other violations have been reported in facilities across Virginia, from Winchester all the way to our southern border in Danville.
In September, we sued the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Washington field office for unlawfully holding immigrants even after they had already won their immigration cases. Read more about the case here, which has the potential to impact dozens of immigrants held in detention in Virginia this year.
Our new Immigrants’ Rights project aims to both reveal and rectify abuses that immigrants are experiencing in the Commonwealth. These are big goals, and we can only achieve them in partnership with immigrants themselves.
Immigrants are Virginians, and together, we’ll make this a safe home for us all.
In the Statehouse
Redistricting didn’t just make the November election especially competitive: it also ensured that the General Assembly will have a lot of new faces come January.
Along with an unprecedented opportunity to put good people in office comes the opportunity to educate them.
When the General Assembly gavels into session, our policy experts will hit the ground running. They’ll make sure lawmakers understand both the issues and the impacted people who experience them most acutely. They’ll be armed with resources from our communications and legal teams, and they’ll encourage lawmakers to have meetings with constituents facilitated by our organizers.
They’ll also begin laying the groundwork for protections that will take years to implement, like a constitutional amendment establishing Virginians’ right to reproductive freedom. Our staff have been planning listening sessions with people across the Commonwealth and meeting with ACLU staff in other states that have already implemented constitutional amendments protecting abortion access to understand what it will take.
Of course, in the short term, lawmaker education will be crucial to making sure that we defeat bad bills – like we successfully did with an unprecedented number of anti-trans bills last year – and that good ones get the support they need.
This year the legislative session will last from January to March. During that time, we’ll keep you updated about the progression of legislation on the issues you care about.
Five Things to Watch in 2024
March 2024: Our class-action lawsuit Thorpe, et al. v. VADOC, et al. on behalf of people held in solitary confinement in Virginia is scheduled for trial.
Spring 2024: We’re conducting a poll with HITstrategies on Virginians’ perspective on reproductive rights, whose results we’ll release in the spring of 2024.
May 2024: Our lawsuit NFB-VA v. VADOC on behalf of visually impaired and blind people incarcerated in Virginia is scheduled for trial.
November 2024: Our lawsuit King v. Youngkin on behalf of people with felony convictions who are being disenfranchised is moving forward with arguments scheduled for the fall of 2024.
All 2024: Look out for us at an event in your community throughout all of 2024: we’ll be tabling Pride events in June and September, and doing electoral work in the fall. See you soon!
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