RICHMOND — Six months ahead of the next session of the Virginia General Assembly, Republican lawmakers say they are already looking for ways to protect religious freedom after a Supreme Court ruling affirming gay couples’ right to marry in all 50 states.
GOP leaders said they would not resist the court’s ruling, but they promised to take steps that show they are listening to the commonwealth’s most loyal Republicans — voters that Republicans are counting on in low-turnout elections for the state House and Senate in November.
What’s less clear is whether such tactics will harm the GOP’s chances with a general electorate in which acceptance of same-sex marriage — and disapproval of allowing businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians — is growing. In Virginia, a key presidential battleground next year, Democrats are likely to seize on Republican initiatives that could be used to cast the GOP as out of step with the majority.
Republicans have not specified what proposals they plan to offer, but House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) has asked Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), deputy majority leader and a former prosecutor, to review what other states have done before they decide what action to take in Virginia.
The state already has a law that seeks to protect an individual’s freedom of religion from government intrusion. The law is slightly different from a proposal in Indiana that critics said was designed to give private companies legal cover to discriminate against the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
One option might be a “conscience clause” bill like those filed last year by Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William). One such proposal last year would have allowed anyone who is professionally licensed by the state, such as a teacher or a counselor, to refuse to serve same-sex couples if he or she has moral or religious objections.
Another proposal would have blocked Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) from making nondiscrimination related to sexual orientation a condition of government contracts. The measure was intended to block him from following President Obama, who had issued a similar executive order saying that federal contractors could not discriminate.
Gay rights advocates in Virginia and across the country have said repeatedly that they have no interest in forcing religious leaders to marry gay couples if they don’t want to. Gilbert said if that’s the case, “no one will mind if we put that in writing.”
“Religious people are right to be wary of where this agenda is headed,” he said. “It remains my position that the far left does not simply want to protect the rights of gay individuals. Their ultimate goal is to tear down religious institutions and belief systems.”
Gilbert said he will work with the Family Foundation of Virginia to craft legislation.
“Virginia owes it to its millions of Christian, Muslim and Jewish citizens who believe in natural marriage to ensure that they aren’t discriminated against because of their beliefs,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia.
Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, called the strategy a cynical effort to incite fear of a nonexistent menace.
“Frankly, at this point, it is really red meat for the election cycle,” she said. “The Republican caucus obviously has a desire to maintain their majority and grow their majority in the Senate, and they think if they rile up their most emotionally charged constituents, they have a better chance to win elections in the fall.”
Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said that, from a political standpoint, it’s a smart move that will help GOP members in gerrymandered districts “protect their right flanks.”
“Its important to remember that Speaker Howell leads a very contentious caucus,” he said. “As the politics of Virginia become more and more polarized with rural conservatives doing battle with urban liberals and moderates, the Republican caucus has to answer conservative Republican demands.”
The move is somewhat surprising given Howell’s olive branch to the gay community last month. On the day of the ruling that legalized same-sex marriage, Howell dropped his previous opposition to changing the state code to reflect gay marriage, which has been legal in Virginia since October.
“I have been a longtime supporter of traditional marriage and am naturally disappointed by today’s Supreme Court ruling,” Howell said in a statement at the time. “However, our nation is governed by the rule of law and we must respect the authority of the Court.”
In a statement Tuesday, Howell emphasized what some have called the next frontier in the quest to woo conservative voters.
“The most pressing concern moving forward is protecting religious liberty,” he said. “We will need to carefully evaluate how this ruling will be applied and make sure we take steps to protect faith leaders, churches, nonprofits and individuals. The House of Delegates will fight vigilantly to protect religious freedom.”
Even before the recent ruling, bakeries and wedding photographers made headlines across the country for refusing to serve same-sex couples.
National polls measuring support for allowing businesses to refuse services to gays and lesbians show that the practice is widely unpopular.
A Public Religion Research Institute survey in June found that 60 percent of people opposed allowing a small business owner to refuse services to gays and lesbians even if doing so violates their religious beliefs. About half as many, 34 percent, supported allowing refusal of services.
That’s one reason why Democrats say that the GOP strategy may win them low-turnout elections this year — but will hurt them in 2016.
“While Virginia Democrats are focused on creating jobs, Republicans have admitted that their top legislative priority is discriminating against people,” said Susan Swecker, chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia. “Focusing on Indiana-style discrimination laws instead of growing our economy is irresponsible, dangerous and hopelessly out of touch.”
Although McAuliffe has ordered state agencies to amend their policies to allow same-sex couples to adopt children, state-funded private adoption and foster-care agencies, many of which are faith-based, can still refuse to work with gay couples.
A 2014 law says that licensed genetic counselors can refuse service to patients based on the counselors’ “deeply held moral or religious beliefs.” And a law passed in the mid-1970s allows health-care professionals to refuse to offer abortions to Virginia women based on “personal, ethical, moral or religious grounds” even when the woman’s life is at stake.
“Virginia has been a leader in passing license-to-discriminate” laws, the ACLU’s Gastañaga said. “We just don’t need any more of them. I was really hoping we had moved beyond our past history.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.