A Virginia Senate committee has set the stage for what could be an inevitable showdown between opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage, as embodied by a fight between the commonwealth’s socially conservative Republican-dominated legislature and its pro-LGBT Democratic governor.
The Senate Committee on Courts of Justice has approved a bill that would allow county circuit court clerks or deputy clerks to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples by citing religious, moral or ethical objections to same-sex marriage or homosexuality in general. If a clerk or deputy clerk refuses to issue a marriage license, the bill provides an alternative route for same-sex couples to get their license, directing them to obtain the license through the State Registrar of Vital Records.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Charles “Bill” Carrico, Sr. (R-Galax, Abingdon, Bristol, Gate City), previously told the Associated Press that he introduced the bill at the request of his constituents, a majority of whom voted in favor of Virginia’s 2006 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The bill has been labeled the “Kim Davis” bill, after the Kentucky county clerk who made headlines and became a mini-celebrity last year for refusing to issue licenses to any couples in her county in order to avoid accusations that she was discriminating against same-sex couples.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has already promised to veto the bill if the General Assembly passes it, arguing that such measures hurt Virginia’s ability to attract businesses, many of whom already have pro-LGBT workplace policies in place, and newer residents to the commonwealth.
Unlike Kentucky and some other Southern states, Virginia has largely carried out the process of granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples without incident. Carrico has even admitted that no clerk has asked for the type of exemptions provided in his bill.
Carrico’s bill passed committee on an 8-7 vote, with all Democrats and newly-elected Sen. Glen Sturtevant (R-Richmond City, Bon Air, Midlothian) voting against the exemptions. If all Democrats stand firm and can keep Sturtevant on board, a vote by the full Senate would split 20-20, leaving the pro-LGBT supporter Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to cast the tie-breaking vote. Other Republicans not on the committee but who have voted for other pro-LGBT measures this session, such as Sens. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Upperville, Winchester, Aldie, Jeffersonton), David Suetterlein (R-Roanoke, Salem, Christiansburg, Austinville) and Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) could also help defeat the bill’s chances of passing the upper chamber. But even if the bill were to pass the Senate and House of Delegates, opponents of same-sex marriage would need to sway significant numbers of Democrats to override a McAuliffe veto.
The Courts of Justice committee — which enjoys one more Republican seat than almost all other Senate committees — also rejected on a 9-6 party-line vote a measure patroned by Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington, McLean, Potomac Falls) that would have added crimes motivated by a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity to the definition of what constitutes a hate crime. The bill would also have required the state police to maintain a central database containing information on hate crimes and local law enforcement agencies to report such crimes to the state police for inclusion in the database.
The committee additionally voted to pass on until 2017 a third LBGT-related bill by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria, Arlington, Mount Vernon). Ebbin’s bill would have repealed any statute banning same-sex marriage or recognition of same-sex relationships that still exists in the Code of Virginia. That bill is separate from another measure introduced by Ebbin that seeks to repeal the explicit (but now defunct) constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.