A bill that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to Virginia's nondiscrimination law cleared committees in the House of Delegates and Senate this week and appears to be on its way to becoming law in the Old Dominion.
A version of the bill known as the Virginia Values Act was shepherded through the Senate committee by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria). In the House, it was sponsored by Mark Sickles (D-Franconia), where it passed by a 16-6 vote, with all Democrats and three Republicans voting in favor.
The mood among activists was celebratory.
Vee Lamneck, the executive director of Equality Virginia, an LGBTQ advocacy group, told MetroWeekly, "We're confident lawmakers will quickly pass this legislation to protect LGBTQ Virginians."
CBN News contacted attorneys with two religious liberty law groups – Greg Baylor, senior counsel of the Alliance Defending Freedom's Center for Legislative Advocacy, and Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel – to find out what impact this law may have on religious organizations.
"Every Virginian deserves to be treated with dignity and respect," Baylor told us in a statement. "Unfortunately, laws that elevate sexual orientation and gender identity to protected classes have a proven record of undermining both fairness and freedom for all citizens."
Baylor explained, "In states and local communities across the nation, laws similar to the proposals advancing in Virginia have empowered the government to force people who willingly serve everyone to promote messages and participate in events that violate their faith or convictions."
Like Baylor, Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel was unequivocal that the Virginia Values Act in its current form will have a direct impact on churches and religious organizations.
Staver says there is a narrow exemption for religious organizations with five or fewer employees, but a vast number of churches and religious schools have far more than that. In a phone interview with CBN News, Staver described how this law could play out, using a Christian school as an example.
"A Baptist school would be free to hire a teacher who was also a Baptist in accordance with the school's belief," Staver explained. "But it would not be allowed to discriminate if that Baptist was also a practicing homosexual, going against the school's belief. Or, if that Baptist teacher was a man who wanted to show up to teach a class dressed as a woman."
According to Staver, there is NO exemption as far as the public accommodations provision in the bill is concerned. If an organization is open to the public, like most religious organizations, churches, and schools are, the exemption does not apply. That means, as an example, that a church taking in the homeless overnight in the winter legally could not insist that sleeping arrangements or bathrooms be separated by biological gender. The same would apply, he says, to a Christian school. The law would require no separation of bathrooms or showers based on biological gender.
That sounds far-fetched to many people, but Greg Baylor says that kind of thing is being enforced already in other places that have similar gender-based laws. He contends that it has huge potential to harm women and girls.
"In Alaska, the city of Anchorage tried to use a similar law to force a women's shelter to allow biological men who identify as women to sleep just three feet away from victims of rape, sex trafficking, and domestic violence," Baylor said.
Those pushing laws like the one advancing now through the Virginia Assembly may mean well, but Baylor says they end up undercutting First Amendment freedoms and place a special burden on people of faith.
"Whether they intend to or not, Virginia lawmakers who support sexual orientation and gender identity bills are choosing to coerce uniformity of thought and speech on beliefs about marriage, sex, and gender. That's a dangerous path, and we respectfully ask Virginia lawmakers to exercise tolerance and respect for the good-faith disagreements we hold across the commonwealth."