The Democrat-controlled Virginia Senate is expected to send legislation to Gov. Ralph Northam that lawyers say could force Christian colleges to house gay couples as part of a nondiscrimination measure.
The bill, HB 1663, known as the “Virginia Values Act,” includes revisions to Virginia’s Human Rights Act and Fair Housing Act that prohibit discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in housing and public spaces. The policy extends to religious institutions and schools employing six or more people.
The bill passed the House of Delegates on Feb. 6. The Senate passed SB 868, a similar bill, on the same day. Both bills are expected to pass the chamber opposite their origin and land on the governor’s desk. Northam spoke in favor of both pieces of legislation, saying that, with them, Virginia will “officially end discrimination” in 2020, signaling that he plans to sign them.
Some legal experts, however, fear the bills will restrict freedom of speech and freedom of association for dissenting religious organizations. Although the legislation provides protections for religious institutions to hire people within their own faith, it does not account for the nuances that often accompany the attempts of faith-based institutions to adhere to both the law and church teachings, Virginia attorney Jim Davids told the Washington Examiner.
Davids, a former professor at the Christian college Regent University, said that, under the act, school administrators will be free to hire within their own faith but could face severe penalties if they try to hire people who do not align with teachings on sexuality and marriages.
The law, he said, will threaten religious colleges that do not provide housing to same-sex couples.
“You can have these circumstances where even co-religionists are not making the grade with the institution,” Davids said. “Under those circumstances, it should be the employer, not the government, calling the shots.”
Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, a Christian nonprofit organization, warned on Tuesday that, if passed without amendments, the legislation will punish colleges such as Regent, Liberty University, and Christendom College.
“We need clarity in this bill,” she said at a press conference in Richmond. “We need clarity as to who they’re trying to specifically target. Is it businesses? Is it churches? Is it private schools? Because, right now, they are all swept into this bill.”
The “Virginia Values Act” is among a series of bills concerning gay and transgender issues passed by the Virginia legislature in 2020. Others include bills allowing transgender people to acquire new birth certificates and bills banning gay conversion therapy for minors. The Senate has passed bills similar to these and the “Virginia Values Act” in recent years, but the Republican-led House held up the legislation.
After the 2019 Democratic sweep in Virginia and a targeted lobbying effort by the Human Rights Campaign, both chambers of the Virginia legislature increasingly began passing bills favoring gay and transgender protections.
“The new law will bring Virginia into the 21st century and into alignment with Virginia voters by modernizing and expanding existing human rights law,” HRC said in a statement after the House passed the “Virginia Values Act.”
But many religious leaders fear that the wording in the barrage of new protections for gay and transgender people will damage their own freedoms.
“These bills seek to undermine our historic and orthodox beliefs, in the name of protecting human rights,” said Brandon Pickett, associate director of the Southern Baptist Convention of Virginia. “Really, it’s not about human rights but a major escalation and attack on our rights as a free people and a major threat to the freedom of religion.”