The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wedding photographer, ministries challenge Virginia’s new LGBT rights law

Del. Danica A. Roem (D-Prince William), the nation’s first openly transgender state legislator, wore her trademark rainbow scarf as she ran for office for the first time in 2017.
Del. Danica A. Roem (D-Prince William), the nation’s first openly transgender state legislator, wore her trademark rainbow scarf as she ran for office for the first time in 2017. (Steve Helber/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

RICHMOND — A wedding photographer and a group of Christian ministries have filed separate lawsuits against a new Virginia law that bans discrimination against lesbian, gay and transgender people and, the plaintiffs say, forces them to violate their "core convictions."

Early this year in a newly blue state Capitol, Virginia became the first Southern state to pass sweeping LGBT rights legislation that bans discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed the Virginia Values Act into law, and it took effect July 1.

In a case filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Loudoun County photographer Bob Updegrove asserts that the law could force him to photograph a same-sex wedding despite his personal opposition to same-sex marriage.

“The government cannot demand that artists create content that violates their deepest convictions,” Jonathan Scruggs, a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious-liberty group representing plaintiffs in both cases, said in a statement.

State Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who sponsored the Virginia Values Act and was the state’s first openly gay legislator, noted that the law also bans discrimination on the basis of race, religion, disability and status as a veteran.

Virginia poised to become first Southern state banning LGBT discrimination

“People have a right to be free from discrimination,” he said. “We’re moving into a Virginia that can accept that. And there are a few people who want to hold onto the past, unfortunately.

The other suit, filed Monday in Loudoun County Circuit Court on behalf of two churches, a religious school and pregnancy center, contends the law will force them to hire employees who don’t share their religious beliefs on marriage and gender identity.

“Virginia’s new law forces these ministries to abandon and adjust their convictions or pay crippling fines — in direct violation of the Virginia Constitution and other state laws,” Denise Harle, another ADF lawyer, said in the group’s statement. “Such government hostility toward people of faith has no place in a free society.”

Both suits name Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) and R. Thomas Payne II, director of the Virginia Division of Human Rights and Fair Housing. Herring spokeswoman Charlotte Gomer said he was reviewing the complaints and “looks forward to defending the Virginia Values Act in court against these attacks.”

Ebbin said the lawsuit brought by the Christian ministries overlooks certain exemptions for religious employers. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that no religious organization can be required to hire someone outside the faith as a minister or other leader.

As for other employees at faith-based organizations — such as a groundskeeper at a church, or a cafeteria worker at religious school — the law is more nuanced, Ebbin said. Religious schools or other entities are allowed to limit employment to members of their faith, but if they make any exceptions, they cannot use faith as a basis to reject others.

Similarly, a church that has a reception hall may restrict its use to church members. But if it makes the facility available more broadly, it cannot refuse someone on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The law does not apply to private clubs.

“If they wish to limit their membership and activities to people of their faith tradition, they can,” Ebbin said. “And I think that’s an appropriate place to draw the line.”

Harle said the exemptions do not fully protect religious freedom for her clients: Calvary Road Baptist Church, Community Fellowship Church, Community Christian Academy and Care Net, a network of pregnancy centers.

This is what a blue state looks like: Rapid change roils Virginia Republicans

Danica Roem: Policy wonk in a rainbow headscarf