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Over Democrats’ objections, Senate OKs ‘religious freedom’ bill

RICHMOND, Va. – Democratic officials and the American Civil Liberties Union blasted Republican senators after they passed a “religious freedom” bill that would protect people who refuse to marry same-gender couples.

HB 2025, sponsored by Del. Nicholas Freitas, R-Culpeper, cleared the Senate on Thursday on a party-line vote of 21-19. The bill protects organizations and their employees who refuse to participate in the “solemnization” of marriage based on a “sincerely held religious belief.”

Freitas said the legislation was a response to Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order that prohibits state contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

“This is simply about preventing the government from punishing a religious organization because it doesn’t fit with a current governor or anyone else’s interpretation of social standards,” Freitas said when introducing the bill in committee.

The bill would protect a religious organization from losing a state contract or its tax-exempt status because of the group’s beliefs regarding marriage. It also would protect individuals from losing state employment, grants or acceptance into a public university if they refuse to participate in the marriage of a same-sex couple.

Democrats, who unanimously voted against the measure, contended it would sanction discrimination against gay and lesbian couples. On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam celebrated the third anniversary of a federal court ruling in the Bostic v. Rainey case legalizing same-sex marriage.

On Thursday, Northam, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, criticized the Senate for approving HB 2025.

“We cannot go backwards. We need to continue to be open and welcoming to all, no matter who you are or who you love,” Northam said in a press release.

Claire Gastanaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, urged her group’s supporters to oppose HB 2025 and SB 1324, an identical bill that passed the Senate last week and is now before the House Committee on General Laws.

“If these bills are signed into law, same-sex couples could be denied services at church-run facilities, hotels or resorts affiliated with religious organizations, or at hospitals owned by religious groups, even if the services are funded by taxpayers,” Gastanaga said.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, argued on the House floor that HB 2025 is unnecessary because the Religious Freedom Restoration Act already makes it illegal for public bodies to discriminate against faith-based organizations on the basis of their religious beliefs.

A similar bill was introduced last year and failed in part because of the argument articulated by Simon.

However, Republicans said they fear that McAuliffe’s executive order could lead to discrimination against faith-based organizations that object to same-sex marriage.

“We had the governor’s executive order, which I believe does just that, or at least creates a mechanism where that can be accomplished,” Freitas said.

Democrats expressed concerns over the bill’s potential economic consequences. North Carolina experienced economic losses after its government passed a similar law last year.

At the beginning of the legislative session, McAuliffe vowed to veto any bill he considered discriminatory. Northam said the governor would veto HB 2025.

At his news conference Tuesday, Northam vowed to protect gay and lesbian Virginians from discrimination.

“Just before the holidays, I completed a seven-city tour that ended in Salem, Virginia, where I was pleased to welcome the NCAA soccer tournament,” Northam said. “That championship was relocated from North Carolina after the state passed anti-LGBT legislation, as was the NBA All-Star game and major businesses. As long as I’m here, as long as Gov. McAuliffe and Attorney General (Mark) Herring are here, Virginia will be inclusive. We will not be like North Carolina.”

Carol Schall, one of the plaintiffs in the Bostic v. Rainey case, also spoke at the news conference. She discussed HB 1395, which would have repealed language in state law that bans same-sex marriage. Even though the language is no longer valid, the bill, sponsored by Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax County, died in a House committee.

“Names matter. Names like ‘mom’ and ‘wife’ make all the difference in the world,” Schall said. “In past years such as this year, Del. Sickles proposed to repeal outdated constitutional amendment encoding discrimination in our great Constitution.”

Sickles called for a full House vote on the issue. He also discussed HJ 538, his proposal to repeal a constitutional amendment adopted by voters adopted in 2006 that defines marriage as being between “one man and one woman.” Sickles’ resolution died in a House committee on an unrecorded vote.

Constitutional amendments require approval in two legislative sessions before they can be presented to voters on a November ballot.

“If this constitutional were passed and it passed again next winter, by the time it got to the voters in November of ’18, 1.2 million people in our state will have come of age,” Sickles said. “They want to speak to this. They do not want the people of the 2006 cultural and societal milieu to speak forever.”

By Julie Rothey with Capital News Service

CNS reporter Tyler Hammel contributed to this report.

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.