In the final days of this year’s legislative session, the Virginia General Assembly approved a bill that provides religious exemptions that would allow individuals and businesses to refuse marriage-related services to same-sex couples. But unfortunately for Republicans pushing the bill, it heads to the desk of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a staunch ally of the LGBT community.
Passage of the religious freedom bill was not guaranteed by any means, as it created tension between the House and the Senate. In the Senate version, exemptions would have been provided for clergy, religious organizations and, under some interpretations of the law, even civil celebrants who perform non-religious marriages. Those designated groups would be allowed to refuse to perform marriages without threat of retaliation, such as losing special tax status, contracts or licensing, from the commonwealth. The House version was much more detailed and broad, giving exemptions not only to religiously-affiliated entities but to business owners, corporations and other individuals that wish to refuse service to LGBT people.
But the language in each bill became problematic after each chamber passed its own version. A Senate committee attempted to amend the House bill to conform to language that had been approved by the full Senate. In response, the House tried to amend the Senate bill to comport with its preferred language, creating a temporary stalemate, explains Brandon Day, a spokesman for Equality Virginia, which was tracking the bills and had opposed their passage.
Eventually, the House passed a substitute to the Senate bill that combined language some of the language from its own version with the bulk of language from the original Senate draft, approving it on a 59-38 vote, with four Republicans joining Democrats in opposing the bill. The Senate then approved the House substitute on a purely party-line 21-19 vote.
The measure now heads to McAuliffe’s desk, where McAuliffe has until April 10 to decide whether to veto the bill. He has previously said he will veto anything that could harm Virginia’s reputation as an open and welcoming place to do business, meaning the measure will likely be killed. Even if rogue Republicans defected back to their party, Democrats, who are united in opposition to the bill, control enough seats in both chambers to make it impossible to override a veto.
James Parrish, the executive director of Equality Virginia, issued a statement on the bill’s passage, saying: “While we are disappointed in the General Assembly’s vote to pass SB 41, an unnecessary and dangerous bill that would create undefined exemptions for discrimination, we are thankful to have a supportive governor that would veto such a bill in order to foster inclusivity and equality for our commonwealth.”
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