RICHMOND — A top Virginia lawmaker wants the state to protect what he calls religious freedom as same-sex marriage and transgender awareness become more accepted across the United States.
Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), deputy majority leader in the House of Delegates, filed a bill that he says would prevent government discrimination against those who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman and that an individual’s sex is determined at birth.
The move is part of a national push by conservatives who say they worry their views could be under attack since the Supreme Court affirmed gay couples’ right to marry last year.
Opponents say the bill is tantamount to taxpayer-funded discrimination and would prohibit the state from enforcing nondiscrimination clauses in contracts and other interactions with people and corporations.
Gilbert said the bill wasn’t a reaction to any incident in Virginia, but rather a proactive response to legal and societal changes.
“The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was written by Thomas Jefferson,” he said. “It is on the wall of the chamber in the House of Delegates. It is as old a principle that we have in this commonwealth that we protect people’s deeply held religious convictions, so this is merely a continuation of that.”
The state has a law that seeks to protect an individual’s freedom of religion from government intrusion. The law is slightly different from a controversial proposal in Indiana that critics said was designed to give private companies legal cover to discriminate against the LGBT community.
Gilbert said his bill seeks to protect people and organizations seeking public contracts, grants, licenses, loans, jobs with the state or access to state property.
But Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) said the bill is intended to ensure that people don’t suffer consequences for discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
“If we were really concerned about religious freedom, you would have included all religions and all kinds of beliefs,” Simon said in an interview. “This is focused on protecting people who want to discriminate against people with impunity.”
Several lawmakers from both parties offered bills against discrimation. Simon and Del. Scott W. Taylor (R-Virginia Beach), a potential candidate for lieutenant governor, filed legislation that would prevent LGBT discrimination in housing. A bill involving LGBT discrimination in public employment was filed by Del. Ronald A. Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach).
Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, said she views Gilbert’s bill as an effort to keep the government from denying a well-meaning religious organization a grant or tax exemption.
“Providing care for the needy should not be threatened because our government disagrees with sincerely and peaceably held beliefs,” she said.
Anna Scholl, executive director of the left-leaning ProgressVA, countered that the bill would allow a landlord to discriminate against LGBT tenants with public subsidies or allow doctors who participate in government health-care programs to deny care.
“Essentially, the bill is taxpayer-subsidized discrimination. This is a blatant attempt to turn religious freedom from a shield to a sword and enshrine the license to discriminate in Virginia law,” she said.
Six months ago, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) tasked Gilbert with the job of seeking legislative methods to push back against the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriages.
On Wednesday, Howell didn’t take a position on Gilbert’s bill.
“The speaker believes that protecting religious liberty is the next battle,” spokesman Matt Moran said, “and is something he has already said the House of Delegates would take a look at this session.”
A spokesman for Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said the governor would veto the bill if it reaches his desk.