Spotlight On: Virginia's Discriminatory Bills

Tuesday was “Crossover” in Virginia – the last day for legislation in the commonwealth to move out of one chamber and into the other.  Generally, any piece of legislation that does not make it out of the chamber in which it was filed, is dead for the session.  We are closely monitoring three bills in the state that would allow discrimination in the name of religion.  One bill failed to cross over, but two of these bills have passed their chamber of origin and will continue through the legislature. 

Virginia SB 40

This bill, which would have allowed state employees to refuse to issue marriage licenses to couples with the constitutional right to marry, failed to move out of the Senate and is essentially dead for the session.  

Virginia SB 41

SB 41 would sanction discrimination by government employees and would interfere with Virginians’ fundamental right to marry by allowing state employees to refuse to solemnize marriages of any couple with which they have a religious objection.  In practice, this bill would allow judges at a courthouse that holds itself open to perform marriages, to turn certain couples away at the door. This is simply unfair.

When the bill was being considered on the Senate floor, Senator Ebbin, Virginia’s only openly gay Senator, offered a substitute to the bill that would have allowed clergy members working in their official capacity—but not government officials and employees—to refuse to solemnize a marriage. Unlike state employees, clergy members and religious leaders solemnizing a marriage are acting in their official religious capacity, and are therefore permitted to refuse to perform marriages that are contrary to their religious traditions. State employees, however, are tasked with carrying out the mandates of the government, not those of their personal religious beliefs.  Unfortunately, this substitute was rejected.

SB 41 would also allow organizations that are operated in connection to a religious organization to refuse to provide any marriage related service. Unfortunately, the bill language is broad, and thus, such entities to can refuse to provide marriage services even if they are operating a place of public accommodation. This would allow, for example, a religiously-affiliated uni­ver­sity or other religious organization, including a commercial wedding chapel, that rents a ban­quet hall or chapel to the general pub­lic for wed­dings, to refuse a couple because the couple is same sex, interfaith, previously divorced, or of a particular faith. There are clear differences between allowing religious leaders and religious organizations to refuse to host or provide services for a marriage within their house of worship, and allowing religious organizations that run commercial wedding spaces open to the public to make money while also allowing them the ability to discriminate and ignore public accommodations laws. Had it not been rejected, Senator Ebbin’s substitute would have removed this troubling provision.

SB 41 narrowly passed the Senate 20-19, with one member not present for the vote, and now heads to the House of Delegates for their consideration. It is scheduled for a hearing in the House General Laws Committee on February 18. You can tell the Committee to reject the law by using our action alert

Virginia HB 773  

Although titled the “Government Nondiscrimination Act,” VA HB 773 is another bill that would actually sanction discrimination and allow individuals to ignore laws and policies that conflict with their religious beliefs about marriage. This bill would allow individuals, businesses, and government-funded organizations to discriminate against Virginians based on a belief that “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.” In addition, this bill would also explicitly allow discrimination against transgender individuals.  We are seeing bills like HB 773 in many states around the country this session. Like many of these bills, HB 773 would sanction:

  • Discrimination by government contractors and grantees:  For example, a homeless shelter or food bank that receives state money could refuse to serve a same-sex couple or single mother in need. A state taxpayer-funded child placement agency could refuse to place children with a same-sex couple.
  • Discrimination by for-profit businesses: For example, this bill could prevent enforcement of family medical leave laws if a business denies gay and lesbian employees the ability to care for a sick spouse.
  • Discrimination in mental health services: The bill provides a narrow exemption for medical providers with respect to decisions about visitation or recognition of a designated representative, but it would still create a dangerous refusal provision for medical providers. For example a psychologist in training could refuse to serve a suicidal patient who is married to someone of the same sex or who is not married but lives with her boyfriend. 

HB 773 passed out of the House with a vote of 56-41. The bill now heads to the Senate. It was assigned to the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology, but no action is currently scheduled.  Stay tuned for more updates on these bills as they move through the General Assembly.