Anti-discrimination Order Prompts ‘religious Freedom' Bill in Va.

WASHINGTON — After Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order last month aimed at barring discrimination, the House of Delegates passed a bill Thursday that would protect religious organizations from losing state benefits due to their beliefs on marriage.

The bill would prevent clergy members or individuals working for a religious organization from losing tax benefits, state contracts or other state benefits due to their sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be between one man and one woman.

“Yes, we don’t want to be engaging in bigoted discrimination, but when the government is engaging in a form of discrimination against a religious institution, it may require us to pass certain bills in order to protect those religious institutions from discrimination by the government, and that is what I think this does,” the bill’s sponsor Del. Nicholas Freitas, R-Culpeper, said.

Executive Order 61, signed Jan. 5, requires nearly all future state contracts valued over $10,000 ban “discrimination in employment, subcontracting, and delivery of goods and services, including discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”

There are exceptions in state law that allow child placement agencies refusal to place children in homes that “violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.”

The executive order also bans discrimination by state workers or agents providing state services through the executive branch. The introduction to the executive order cited the economic fallout from states that have passed laws that have been perceived as discriminatory, including allusions to North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill.” The order is similar to one McAuliffe issued when he took office in 2014.

“This governor crossed a line, and we have to defend those religious organizations,” Freitas said before the House of Delegates passed HB2025, 57-37. That is not enough votes to override a potential veto by the Democratic governor.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, argued that laws already on the books ensure contracts are not wrongly impacted by last month’s executive order, and that this is simply a “message bill.”

“When you pick one particular religious belief and prefer it over all other religious beliefs, you’ve got a problem. You’re discriminating in favor of one particular set of religious beliefs that aren’t shared by everybody else,” Simon said.

Del. Vivian Watts, D-Annandale, called the bill an “overreaction.”

“There is nothing in the governor’s executive order that deals with solemnization of marriage — nothing,” she said.

Freitas said the nondiscrimination order could impact religious charities that work with the state.

Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Thornburg, said that he sees the bill as “poking a sore that none of us want to poke,” but something that is needed.

“I think the governor has precipitated a circumstance whereby we need to do something,” Orrock said.

Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, said during an initial floor debate on the bill Wednesday that the governor’s order tried to “exclude religious organizations from any contract with the commonwealth of Virginia if you don’t submit to his sexual, ideological, venereal passions about who can have a contract and who cannot have a contract.”

Orrock and Freitas said the bill was not intended to cause any offense or restrict the ability of same-sex couples to marry as allowed since a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

A similar bill passed the House last year but the House and Senate could not agree on final language.

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