RICHMOND, Virginia - All eyes are on the Virginia Legislature right now as lawmakers are close to passing laws that could negatively affect churches and other faith-based organizations.
The so-called Virginia Values Act could affect who these groups hire and even how they configure their restrooms.
"And because people of faith have different ideas about what is sexuality and what are genders, they're going to come under the wrath of government for having a counter view," said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation.
The organization came to Richmond on Tuesday, sounding the alarm over three main bills quickly making their way through the legislature that they believe represents a weaponizing of the government against the church.
Two of the bills outlaw discrimination in public places based on factors such as gender and sexual orientation. If they become law, it could have serious implications for an all-boys Christian school and similar organizations.
"The laws being proposed, really at the end of the day, are going to hurt freedom of speech and freedom of religion to express one's religion and religious convictions," said Gerson Morena-Riano, executive vice president of academic affairs at Regent University.
Separate boys' and girls' restrooms could also become a thing of the past if the Democratic majority has its way. A third bill would prohibit hiring and firing practices based on gender or sexual orientation. Think about churches that only have male priests or a convent with all-female nuns.
"This is the first time that we've ever seen something that affects quote unquote public accommodations which is very vaguely defined and goes to anything that is essentially open to the public," Cobb said.
Opponents of the bills say the very rules meant to thwart discrimination would in fact heap it on them.
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"We're very concerned that this could lead to persecution of our churches in various forms, and penalties from the state simply because of our religious beliefs and convictions," said Brandon Pickett of the Southern Baptist Convention of Virginia.
In addition, Moreno-Riano said he's very concerned about the potential expansion of the attorney general's prosecutorial powers that accompanies these bills.
"To argue that the attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer of the state of Virginia, could initiate civil actions based on what he or she may think is happening or what could happen - again very, very scary," Moreno-Riano said.
The Family Foundation will push for amendments to the bills to protect faith-based entities. If the bills pass the legislature as is, they'll appeal to the governor to make the changes. If that fails, Cobb said, a lawsuit would be the next step.
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