Metro Weekly

Anti-Gay Discrimination Bill Introduced in Virginia

"Conscience clause" bill would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT people under guise of religion

Del. Bob Marshall

Del. Bob Marshall (Photo credit: Bob Marshall’s Facebook page)

A Virginia lawmaker has introduced a so-called “conscience clause” bill that would allow private businesses to discriminate against LGBT people and couples without fear of reprisal, setting up a fight for the coming year’s General Assembly session that could also serve as a campaign issue in next November’s legislative elections. 

Del. Bob Marshall (R-Manassas Park, Prince William Co.) introduced HB1414, which says that any person seeking to obtain or renew a license from the commonwealth, its political subdivisions, or any agency, board or department “shall not be required to perform, assist, consent to, or participate in any action or refrain from performing, assisting, consenting to or participating in any action as a condition of obtaining or renewing the license, registration or certificate where such condition would violate the religious or moral convictions of such person with respect to same sex ‘marriage’ or homosexual behavior.” Notably, by including both “marriage” and “behavior” in his bill, Marshall ensures that business owners would be able to discriminate against both legally married Virginians in same-sex unions and unmarried people who are perceived to be LGBT.

Similar bills seeking to deny service to LGBT people have been introduced in other states in recent years, including Arizona, where Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed a measure last year that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to LGBT patrons, and Mississippi, where Gov. Phil Bryant (R) signed a significantly-tailored law into effect that says government cannot put a substantial burden on the practice of religion. An earlier version of the Mississippi bill had sought to allow businesses to deny service to LGBT people.  

National and local LGBT advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), had previously predicted that efforts by conservative legislators to attempt to enshrine anti-LGBT discrimination in law would increase, particularly after the introduction of same-sex marriage by judicial decision in states that previously banned the practice, like Virginia. 

Local groups balked at the proposed legislation. Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, the executive director of the ACLU of Virginia blasted the bill and said voting for the bill would demonstrate a legislator’s hostility to the LGBT community. 

“This legislation is nothing more than a state-sanctioned license to discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Virginians, including married same-sex couples, simply because of who they are,” Guthrie Gastañaga said in a statement. “The bill would do nothing more than reignite the Commonwealth’s historical hostility toward LGBT Virginians. We’ve been down the path of legalized discrimination before, and the members of the General Assembly should know that this is not a path we should willingly walk ever again. …Sadly, discrimination under the cloak of religion is nothing new, and the transparency of that cloak is as clear now as it was 50 years ago when some business owners used it to challenge the end of legal segregation of the races in public accommodations.

“The issue is simple — either you support discrimination or you oppose it,” Guthrie Gastañaga continued. “The members of the General Assembly should make clear that they oppose discrimination by rejecting this legislation.”

Equality Virginia, the commonwealth’s top LGBT rights organization, issued its own statement decrying the Marshall bill and vowing to lobby General Assembly legislators to vote against it and any other bills that would seek to allow discrimination under the guise of religion, saying the commonwealth is “better than that.” 

“This piece of legislation is extremist, hateful and discriminatory,” said James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia. “Businesses and service agencies that are open to the public should be open to everybody on the same terms, including to LGBT customers and clients. While we are all entitled to our own religious beliefs, we cannot use those beliefs to discriminate against others. Discrimination is wrong — it’s that simple.”

Inquiries seeking comment from Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), a supporter of marriage equality, as to whether he’d veto the bill should the General Assembly passed it, were not returned as of press time. 
 
Marshall’s bill is slated to be heard by the House General Laws Committee, which is controlled by Republicans, 15-7, and chaired by Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah, Page, Rockingham, Warren counties), a fierce opponent of LGBT rights. However, five Northern Virginia Republicans could prove essential to whether the bill passes, as the measure needs 12 votes to pass out of committee and to the floor for a vote by the full House, and two other Republicans from downstate have previously been supportive of LGBT rights, leaving the five Northern Virginia Republicans as potential swing votes, particularly if leaned upon by their generally pro-LGBT constituents. Those Republicans are: Jim LeMunyon (R-Fairfax, Loudoun counties), Tag Greason (R-Loudoun Co.), Dave Albo (R-Fairfax Co.) David Ramadan (R-Loudoun, Prince William counties), and Rich Anderson (R-Prince William Co.).
 
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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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