Jenna Portnoy, In Va., bill pitting gay rights vs. religious freedoms advances, The Washington Post

Lawmakers in Virginia on Thursday reworked and advanced legislation that would prohibit the government from punishing religious organizations that discriminate against same-sex couples.

The bill is a more narrowly focused version of one that made waves last month after a gay delegate from Fairfax implored his colleagues in an emotional floor speech to consider the sweep of history and act with fairness. The measure passed the House anyway, but it hit a roadblock in the usually more moderate Senate.

Now lawmakers are back with a bill that the House sponsor, Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), said is an effort to craft a compromise while protecting the religious freedom of people who feel under attack by shifting cultural attitudes.

Gay rights activists and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said the bill still amounts to a license to discriminate and would not pass constitutional muster. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has said he would veto bills that seek to erode gay rights.

The bill passed a House panel Thursday afternoon along party lines, except for Del. Joseph R. Yost (R-Giles), who did not vote. The full House is set to vote on the bill Monday, followed by the Senate, where Sen. Charles “Bill” W. Carrico (R-Grayson) is the sponsor.

The bill and others like it around the country proliferated in reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision last summer affirming the right for gay couples to marry in all 50 states.

Although lawmakers could not cite any examples of discrimination against those with religious objections to same-sex marriage, advocates for the bill said it’s a preemptive strike against the potential for that to happen in the future.

“I’m not sure everybody believes that there isn’t a goal on the other side of this debate to circumvent what we believe to be our constitutional protections,” Gilbert said. “This is an added layer of protection centered around a current flash point in the debate concerning religious liberty which is same-sex marriage.”

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said the free exercise of religious beliefs is already protected under the First Amendment, Virginia’s statute for religious freedom and the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

However, she said, the bill seeks to elevate one type of religious belief above all others.

“It’s unconstitutional on its face, in reference to only giving special privileges to people who have a certain belief, which is a belief about marriage,” she said. “It’s unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. The government can’t do that.”

Previously, the bill protected discrimination against not just gay married couples, but also transgender people and anyone straight or gay who has sex outside marriage.

In another change, the earlier version applied to a long list of entities with sincerely held religious beliefs, including individuals, private companies and trusts. Now it says only clergy, religious organizations and anyone affiliated with those organizations can discriminate without fear of penalty, such as losing tax benefits, grants, contracts, loans, scholarships, certification, accreditation or jobs.

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