RICHMOND – A group of Republican lawmakers on Monday touted a bundle of legislation that they said would ensure religious freedom but that critics said would sanction discrimination against gay couples seeking to marry.
Led by Sen. Charles Carrico Sr. of Galax and Del. Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah, the GOP legislators held a press conference at the Capitol to discuss their bills. The proposals were prompted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last June to legalize same-sex marriages.
The Republican-sponsored bills would allow ministers and groups to refuse to participate in same-sex weddings on the basis of their religious convictions. Otherwise, some Virginians would be forced to offer services that go against their core beliefs, according to supporters of the legislation.
“The heavy hand of government is coercing businesses to participate in same-sex unions,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia.
“Religious nonprofits, ministries and schools are the next target of discrimination – something that even the Obama administration acknowledged during its oral arguments.”
Under Carrico’s Senate Bill 41, a marriage officiant wouldn’t be required to marry same-sex couples. The bill also states that no religious organization would have to provide accommodations, facilities, goods or other services for a wedding or marriage if the action would violate the group’s religious beliefs. The legislation is awaiting action by the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology.
“Our founders got it right,” Carrico said.
“They didn’t want to infringe upon those deep held beliefs. They didn’t expect the government to step in and say to an individual, because you have this deep held belief that you have to do X, Y and Z.”
Caleb Dalton, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, says court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage is problematic.
“Policies that marginalize and punish diverse views create intolerance, disrespect and strife amongst citizens,” Dalton said.
Gilbert has introduced HB 773, which he calls the Government Nondiscrimination Act. It would prevent state and local governments from discriminating against a person or organization that believes marriage is between a man and a woman.
The bill also would prevent the denial of government grants, licenses, contracts and tax breaks for those who, based on their religious beliefs, deny services to same-sex couples. HB 773 has been assigned to the House General Laws Committee.
“Fundamentally, I think all Americans agree that nobody should be forced to adhere to a particular belief system if they don’t choose to,” Gilbert said.
Also at the press conference, lawmakers discussed:
* HB 19, filed by Del. Christopher Head, R-Roanoke. Under this bill, ministers and other people authorized to perform marriages would not be required to take an oath, and they would not be considered an officer of the commonwealth. The bill is pending in the House Courts of Justice Committee.
* HB 791, sponsored by Del. Les Adams, R-Chatham. It asserts that religious rights are “the natural and unalienable rights of mankind and this declaration shall remain the policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” Last week, a subcommittee of the House General Laws Committee unanimously recommended approval of this measure.
“These bills are targeted to protect that religious freedom that each and every person has and believes in that spirit within them that drives them to do the moral right things,” Carrico said.
However, some critics say the term “religious freedom” is nothing more than a license to discriminate.
Equality Virginia, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian Virginians, fears that the civil rights of gay citizens would be violated as a result of the “religious freedom” proposals. The group says the laws like SB 41 are too vague and would harm both the LGBT community and Virginia’s economy.
“Houses of worship and clergy already have the constitutionally protected freedom to decide which marriages they will and won’t perform in their faith traditions,” Equality Virginia said in a statement on its website.
“Under current law, no church or pastor could be forced to perform a marriage that goes against their religious teaching or beliefs – including, for example, marriages of same-sex couples, interfaith marriages, or marriages of people previously divorced.
“Broad religious exemptions open the door for people to claim they have a right to decide which laws they will and won’t obey, creating uncertainty for law enforcement and making it difficult for officers to enforce the law.”
Equality Virginia said SB 41 “could open the floodgates to legal chaos and frivolous lawsuits at taxpayer expense.”
“The unintended consequences of this bill may cost Virginia’s taxpayers large sums of money, which could be used towards improving our schools or building our economy,” the group said.