Arizona has Nothing on Virginia. Tell Governor McAuliffe that Legal Discrimination Stops Here! Veto SB 330.

Last month, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed legislation that would have allowed businesses to deny service to gay and lesbian customers.  The legislation rightly received national attention – it conjured up memories of a time when people were refused service at hotels and lunch counters because of the color of their skin or the God they worship.  While the national media attention has focused on Arizona, Virginia has been moving in this direction for years, and this year threatens to take a big step toward the kind of license to discriminate legislation Governor Brewer just killed.

In the mid 70’s, after Virginia was sued for failing to conform its abortion laws to the U.S. Constitution, the Virginia legislature passed a “conscience clause” that allows hospital and health care professionals to refuse to offer this medical service to Virginia women based on “personal, ethical, moral or religious grounds” even where the woman’s life is at stake.  

In 2012, the Virginia legislature passed a “conscience clause” that allows state-funded adoption and foster care agencies to refuse to serve prospective parents or needy children based on the state funded agencies’ “religious convictions.”

In 2013, the Virginia legislature passed a law that requires public colleges and universities to recognize and fund student political and religious organizations even if the organizations intentionally discriminate in their membership or leadership in furtherance of their religious or political mission.

This year, the General Assembly took the step of including a “conscience clause” in otherwise harmless legislation to license genetic counselors (SB 330 & HB 612).   The “conscience clause” written into the bill will allow genetic counselors to refuse service to patients based on the counselors’ “deeply held moral or religious beliefs.”

What do these Virginia “conscience clauses” have in common? They all allow a state licensed or state funded person or organization to engage in intentional and purposeful discrimination against any person or class of persons based on their “moral,” “religious,” or, in one case, “political” beliefs.

In the case of the genetic counselor bill, for example, a state licensed professional will be able to deny counseling to any patient simply because the patient is lesbian or gay or of a different religious faith or unmarried and pregnant or because the person may want to take an action with which the counselor doesn’t personally agree based on the genetic information provided by the counselor.  This bill is so extreme that, like the early 70’s abortion “conscience clause,” it will shield a genetic counselor from damages even if the counselor took purposeful action based on his or her personal beliefs that results in actual physical harm or death to the patient.  

While this year’s legislation may seem minor because it applies only to genetic counselors, its proponents have announced that it is just the next step toward licensing all professions and businesses in Virginia to discriminate based on their religious or moral beliefs without sanction or limitation.

As The Family Foundation stated in its email sent out minutes after the Senate vote on an amendment proposed by the Governor, not to eliminate, but merely to temper the language of the “conscience clause,” “[i]f genetic counselors can be protected from being forced to violate their conscience, it follows that all other professions should receive equal protection.”  

Clearly, the proponents of the now growing string of pearls on Virginia’s “conscience clause” necklace desire to use this bill as a model for extending legal discrimination beyond abortion, adoption, student organizations, and genetic counselors to all professions and businesses in Virginia.  They want to grow the “conscience clause” necklace until it chokes the life out of the movement toward full equality for all Virginians.

The proponents are not satisfied only with protecting professions and businesses from adverse state licensing actions.  They fought for blanket immunity that will protect people using religion to discriminate in public services or businesses from “any claim of damages.” Accordingly,  they fought an amendment offered by Governor McAuliffe that would have limited the “conscience clause” protections to licensing actions, eliminated the blanket immunity, and protected patients from harm by ensuring  that genetic counselors who choose to deny services based on their personal beliefs to provide their patients timely notice and a referral.  Even if the legislature had accepted the Governor’s amendment, the “conscience clause” would still have granted genetic counselors an unlimited license to discriminate, but that wasn’t enough for its advocates.

Sadly, using religion to legitimize discrimination is nothing new.  In the 1960s, we saw institutions object to laws requiring integration in restaurants because of some owners’ beliefs that God wanted the races to be separate. We saw religiously affiliated universities refuse to admit or choose to dismiss or discipline students who engaged in interracial dating. At one time there were Jewish exclusion laws that kept people out of hotels and other public accommodations simply because of their faith. In short, we have been down this road, and, each time we have recognized that religious freedom grants us the right to our religious beliefs, but not the right to use our religion to discriminate against and impose those beliefs on others who do not share them.  

During the debate on the Governor’s Amendment to the genetic counselor’s bill, the chief patron of SB 330 said on the floor of the Senate that she was “perfectly comfortable” with both the original version of the “conscience clause” in the bill that granted a free license to discriminate and blanket immunity when doing so, and with the more narrow version of a “conscience clause” that the Governor proposed.

Virginia can’t afford to be “perfectly comfortable” with licensing discrimination.  There are too many pearls on our “conscience clause” necklace already.  It’s time to tell the Governor and the legislature that it stops here.

Tell the Governor that you aren’t “comfortable,” much less “perfectly comfortable” with writing another license to discriminate into Virginia’s Code.  It stops here!

Ask the Governor to join us in opposing any further expansion of laws licensing discrimination.  It stops here!

Ask the Governor to send a message to “conscience clause” proponents that passage of this bill is not a beginning but an ending.  It stops here!

Urge the Governor to take a stand by vetoing SB 330.  Tell him “it stops here!”