Metro Weekly

McAuliffe vetoes Virginia religious exemption bill

Virginia governor points to backlash in other states, warning of consequences of anti-LGBT legislation

Gov. Terry McAuliffe


Activists in Virginia are breathing a sigh of relief, after Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vetoed a bill that would give people leeway to discriminate against the LGBT community.

The bill in question, SB 41, provides exemptions for clergy, religiously-affiliated organizations, and possibly civil celebrants, who solemnize non-religious marriages. It also allows a business, individual or other organization to refuse goods or services to LGBT individuals or same-sex couples. In many ways, it mirrors similar bills that have been introduced in various states throughout the country, including, most notably, Georgia, where that state’s Republican governor vetoed its own version of a religious exemption law.

The bill passed on largely party-line votes, with only four House Republicans — all from southern Virginia — defecting and voting “no” along with all Democrats. McAuliffe had previously vowed to veto the bill, arguing that anything that could be construed as an attack against the LGBT community would hurt Virginia’s ability to attract and retain talent and economic opportunities.

“Although couched as a ‘religious freedom’ bill, this legislation is nothing more than an attempt to stigmatize,” McAuliffe said in his veto message. “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.

“This legislation is also bad for business and creates roadblocks as we try to build the new Virginia economy,” McAuliffe continued, referencing the backlash felt by the state of North Carolina after lawmakers rammed through an anti-LGBT bill in a special session. “…We need only look at the damage these types of laws are doing in other states to understand the harm this bill could bring to our Commonwealth and its economy.”

Equality Virginia Executive Director James Parrish praised McAuliffe for the veto, saying that the act, as passed, “sought to blatantly and directly discriminate against gay and lesbian couples and families under the guise of religious freedom.” The bill was one of nine anti-LGBT pieces of legislation pushed by the General Assembly this year, and one of nearly 200 in the entire country that attempted to single out the LGBT community for disparate treatment.

“While we are happy that SB 41 will not become law, the General Assembly’s votes against fairness and nondiscrimination make it clear that our work is far from over,” Parrish said in a statement. “The majority of Virginians believe in fairness and equality, and it is discouraging to see so many of our legislators unwilling to stand with them for what is right by passing discriminatory legislation.”

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