Metro Weekly

Anti-gay “religious freedom” bills pass Virginia House and Senate

Respective bills head to opposite legislative chambers, even as Gov. McAuliffe promises vetoes

Virginia State House (Photo: Farragutful, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Virginia State House (Photo: Farragutful, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Virginia General Assembly lawmakers have approved two “religious freedom” measures that seek to provide special protections those who oppose homosexuality or same-sex marriage.

The Senate approved SB41, a bill that reiterates an existing First Amendment protection that no clergy person or religious organization and its employees shall ever be forced to solemnize or provide goods and services to a marriage that violates their religious beliefs. It also protects those who reject participating in marriages, such as the wedding of a same-sex couple, from the threat of a lawsuit. Furthermore, it allows a judge or other public officiant to refuse to perform a marriage if it violates their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Speaking in opposition, Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria, Arlington, Mount Vernon) said the bill “carves out a space for bigotry cloaked under the guise of religious freedom.” During the debate, Ebbin offered an amendment that would have spelled out the existing exemption for clergy members and religious organizations, but would not have allowed government officials to abdicate their responsibilities. Ebbin’s amendment also had a clause that would have repealed the now-defunct statutory bans on same-sex marriage and civil unions.

“The legislation would allow judges to turn away certain couples at the courthouse door,” Ebbin said. “Government officials should not be allowed to pick and choose which of their duties they will fulfill or which services they will provide and to whom, especially when the result would be blatant discrimination and the service to be denied involves a fundamental human right. Nor should government employees be allowed to impose their personal religious beliefs on those whom they serve.”

The bill now heads to the House of Delegates, where it is expected to pass. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has vowed to veto any measure that would restrict LGBT rights or that could create the perception that Virginia is unwelcoming to certain groups.

Meanwhile, the House of Delegates passed its own “religious freedom” measure, HB773, which creates the Government Nondiscrimination Act. The act would prohibit any government entity from trying to take retaliatory action against a person or business for expressing a “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” that opposes homosexuality, same-sex marriage, or the concept that people can be transgender.

That means that the person or business who is vocally anti-LGBT could not be threatened with the loss of tax credits or exemptions, or any contract, license, certification or accreditation for expressing their desire to discriminate against LGBT people.

HB773 passed 56-41, with seven Republicans, most from the Virginia Beach area, voting against it. Three other Republicans did not vote. The bill now heads to the Senate, where it is expected to pass in the same way SB41 did. And, like its counterpart, it is also expected to be vetoed by McAuliffe.

Despite the passage of both “religious freedom” bills, the LGBT community did receive some good news about three other anti-LGBT bills that failed to pass committee. A measure that would have made it nearly impossible for transgender people to amend their birth certificates to correctly reflect their gender identity died in subcommittee.

Two other measures that passed at the subcommittee level failed to gain the support of a majority of members of the House Committee on General Laws:

  • One would seek to prohibit localities and school boards from adopting pro-LGBT measures or interpretations of statutes dealing with gender identity or sexual orientation discrimination — such as Title IX for schools — failed after five Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the bill.
  • Another, which would have prohibited transgender people in government buildings, including schools, from using the restroom consistent with their gender identity also failed, with seven Republicans — including several from Northern Virginia — voting against the proposal.

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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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