Metro Weekly

Virginia Senate passes “religious freedom” bill on party-line vote

Despite an expected veto by the governor, Republicans are mostly unified in carving out same-sex marriage exemptions

Virginia State House – Photo: Farragutful, via Wikimedia.

On Thursday, the Virginia Senate approved a so-called “religious freedom” bill that would prevent the government from imposing any penalty or denying any special tax status, contract, or recognition to a person who either refuses to solemnize, participate in, or provide services for a same-sex wedding based on their religious beliefs.

The measure, sponsored by Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) passed along party lines, with all 21 Republicans voting in favor and all 19 Democrats voting against. When it originally passed the House, only 4 of the House’s 66 Republicans defected to vote against the bill.

At the same time, a nearly identical Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Bill Carrico (R-Grayson), has already passed the upper chamber and is awaiting a vote in the House, where it is likely to be approved by similar margins . 

Last year, Republicans passed similar measures in both chambers, only to have Gov. Terry McAuliffe veto them, citing concerns over ensuring Virginia is seen as a welcoming environment for businesses, including many that have pro-LGBT employee policies in place. McAuliffe has already vowed several times this session that he will veto any measure seen as hostile to LGBTQ rights.

LGTBQ advocates have also noted that the bill is unnecessary, because social conservatives and religious clergy are already protected from participating in or performing same-sex marriages by the First Amendment.

“Although couched as a ‘religious freedom’ bill, this legislation is nothing more than an attempt to stigmatize,” McAuliffe said in a statement announcing his veto last year. “Any legitimate protections afforded by Senate Bill 41 are duplicative of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States; Article I, Section 11 of the Constitution of Virginia; and the Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Any additional protections are styled in a manner that prefers one religious viewpoint — that marriage can only validly exist between a man and a woman — over all other viewpoints. Such a dynamic is not only unconstitutional, it equates to discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.”

However, the bill’s passage should also serve as a warning for Democrats and supporters of the LGBTQ community about the importance of this year’s upcoming elections in November. Should a Republican win the governor’s mansion, it is likely that the same bills will not only pass the legislature, but will be signed into law.

In other LGBTQ-related news, on Tuesday, a House subcommittee defeated the last two remaining pro-equality measures that were working their way through the legislature: a bill prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public employment, and another measure banning anti-LGBT discrimination in housing.

Both bills had previously passed the Senate with unanimous support from Democrats and one-third of the Senate Republican caucus. In subcommittee, Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) moved that both bills be passed out of subcommittee and be considered by the full House Committee on General Laws. But Republicans, who enjoy a 5-2 edge on the subcommittee, voted on party lines to reject Aird’s proposal and table the bills on a voice vote. 

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com