Kyle Taylor | Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Government officials who are authorized to perform marriages could refuse to marry same-sex couples under a bill approved Monday by the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee over the objections of LGBT advocates.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Equality Virginia and other groups opposed Senate Bill 41, which also states that religious organizations and their employees may deny “services, accommodations, facilities, goods, or privileges” for a marriage if it would “violate a sincerely held religious belief.”
Splitting along party lines, the committee voted 8-7 in favor of SB 41, which was sponsored by Sen. Charles Carrico, R-Galax. All of the Republicans on the panel voted for the bill; all of the Democrats voted against it.
Carrico filed the legislation in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last June to legalize same-sex marriages. He said it would protect “religious freedom” by letting people and groups who have religious objections to same-sex marriage refuse to participate in such ceremonies.
“Our founders got it right,” Carrico said at a press conference last month. “They didn’t want to infringe upon those deep-held beliefs. They didn’t expect the government to step in and say to an individual, because you have this deep-held belief that you have to do X, Y and Z.”
But opponents of SB 41 said it would allow discrimination against same-sex couples even by government officials who are supposed to uphold the law.
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“We think that it is unconstitutional in that respect because it allows public officials to deny services to groups of people based on their personal beliefs,” Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, told the Senate committee.
The Human Rights Act in Virginia already forbids discrimination based on religion. And under the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, ministers already have the right to refuse to marry a couple based on their religious beliefs.
“That’s what the legislators supporting SB41 are saying they are concerned about, but that’s not true. This bill is in conflict of existing law,” Gastañaga said. “It also extends beyond existing law by specifically allowing even judges to limit what they do by saying that it conflicts with their religious beliefs.”
Equality Virginia, an advocacy group for gay Virginians, and Right Way Forward Virginia also oppose SB 41, according to statements they have posted on Richmond Sunlight, a legislative information website.
Right Way Forward Virginia said the bill would “help perpetuate a commonly-held misconception that equal treatment under law of same-sex couples who wish to marry imposes obligations on houses of worship and clergy.”
The members of the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee who voted for SB 41 were Republican Sens. Frank Ruff of Clarksville, Dick Black of Leesburg, Bill DeSteph of Virginia Beach, Tom Garrett of Lynchburg, Bryce Reeves of Spotsylvania, Richard Stuart of Westmoreland, David Suetterlein of Salem and Jill Holtzman Vogel of Winchester.
The committee members who opposed the bill were Democratic Sens. George Barker and Adam Ebbin of Alexandria, Mamie Locke of Hampton, Jeremy McPike of Dale City, Chap Petersen of Fairfax, Scott Surovell of Mount Vernon and Jennifer Wexton of Leesburg.