Metro Weekly

Virginia House passes anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” marriage exemption bill

Gov. McAuliffe vetoed a similar bill last year

Virginia State House – Photo: Farragutful, via Wikimedia.

The Virginia House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved a “religious freedom” bill that would exempt people from having to solemnize same-sex marriages.

The bill would also prevent the commonwealth from fining, taking away tax incentives or denying any licensure, certification, or contract from a person who has a moral or religious objection to participating in said marriage. It mirrors a measure passed last year that was eventually vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Proponents say it’s necessary to protect the religious liberty of people who object to same-sex marriage, and to ensure that ministers and clergy are not fined or penalized for expressing their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.

But opponents say that the measure is unnecessary, because ministers and clergy are protected by the First Amendment. They note that no clergy member has been penalized or compelled to marry same-sex couples, even though marriage equality has been legal for nearly two years in Virginia.

Furthermore, most civil celebrants who solemnize civil marriages in the commonwealth — including a large number who are priests, rabbis or other religious leaders — have said that the bill is a solution in search of a problem.

The primary objection is the bill’s broad definition of who constitutes a “person.” It defines a person as any “religious organization, organization supervised or controlled by or operated in connection with a religious organization, individual employed by a religious organization while acting in the scope of his paid of volunteer employment, or successor, representative, agent, agency, or instrumentality of any of the foregoing.”

That definition might allow a volunteer or representative of a church-owned building, or a Knights of Columbus hall that rents itself out to the larger public, to refuse to rent to any LGBT-affirming group or to a same-sex couple. Opponents of the bill say that would constitute discrimination.

The House approved the measure on a largely party-line 57-37 vote, with four Republicans voting with the Democrats. Those Republicans were: Joseph Yost (R-Blacksburg), Ron Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach), Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) and Chris Stolle (R-Virginia Beach).

Five other Republicans — Chris Collins (R-Winchester), Tag Greason (R-Potomac Falls), Keith Hodges (R-Urbanna), Manoli Loupassi (R-Richmond) and Will Morefield (R-North Tazewell) — did not vote. 

An almost identical bill has been introduced in the Virginia Senate. That measure is awaiting a vote in the Senate General Laws and Technology committee, but is expected to pass, as it did last year. In either case, both the House and Senate versions are assuredly going to be blocked by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who earlier this year threatened to veto any measure that seeks to discriminate against LGBT Virginians.

McAuliffe believes such legislation only harms the state by sullying its reputation and making it harder to attract business opportunities and a talented work force to the state.

The bill resembles a recently leaked draft of an executive order by President Donald Trump, which similarly threatened to legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people in the name of “religious freedom.”

The leaked draft drew widespread condemnation from LGBTQ rights organizations, with the Trump administration later stating there were no plans “at this time” to sign a finished version of the order into law.

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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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