By Nelson Helm
Virginia lawmakers are scheduled to take final action Monday on a bill that would allow discrimination, without fear of repercussion, of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community. Different versions of the bill have already narrowly passed both the House and the Senate.
House Bill 773, also called the Government Nondiscrimination Act, was introduced by Republican Rep. Todd Gilbert and would prohibit the government from taking action against any person because of their religious or moral beliefs on the traditional view of marriage. Gilbert represents Page and Shenandoah counties as well as parts of Rockingham and Warren counties. Gov. Terry McAuliffe has said that he would veto the bill.
In its original form, the bill would make it illegal to change the tax exempt status, terminate contracts or accreditation, or revoke entitlement to state properties of those who believe that marriage is recognized as the union of one man and one woman.
This bill is part of a national trend of “religious freedom restoration acts,” which attempt to ensure that interests in religious freedom are protected. Seventeen state legislatures considered similar bills in 2015, with only two governors signing the bills into law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“It seems kind of ironic that it is called a nondiscrimination bill that allows people to discriminate against LGBTQ folks based on religious reasons and their idea of what marriage is,” said the Rev. Lyndon Sayers of Lexington, who spoke as an ordained clergy and not as a part of his congregation. “That was something that struck me as a bit odd.”
Julie Woodzicka, a psychology professor at Washington and Lee University, attributed this bill to the current state of the country. She said that because of outspoken people like Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, others are letting out prejudice that was previously kept under wraps.
“That’s exactly why we should be politically correct so that people who are really racist or really anti-gay, to keep them in check,” she said. “If you have laws that are saying that it’s good to discriminate, then it’s got to make [the country] worse.”
Sayers said that one reason for the bill could be fear. He said that white, heterosexual Christians make up the dominant group in U.S. society. When the dominant group feels under attack, he said, it’s because the minority group is receiving more rights and freedoms than the dominant group is used to.
“There is a kind of tug-of-war going on right now,” Sayers said. “People don’t know where it will lead.”
Leila Baldridge, president of Generals Unity, a LGBT advocacy group on the campus of Washington and Lee, was concerned that people would take this bill as an open invitation to discriminate against those who didn’t have the same view.
“This is something that people keep trying to get passed, not just in Virginia but all over the country in different kinds of wording,” Baldridge said. “But it’s the same thing. They want the right to discriminate against people without any consequences.”
Sayers said that bills like this are an interpretive question, where one needs to grapple with what “is Jesus calling us to do in the world.” He said that Jesus continuously abandoned the center where things were safe and went to people on the margins suffering. Sayer said he thinks members of the LGBT community are suffering because of violence and shaming.
“I think as Christians, how do we reach out to people who are suffering and reach out to them on theological and biblical grounds,” Sayers said. “In granting that people on the other side will also put forth arguments that they will say are theologically and biblically based.”
Sayers also said that during debates over same-sex marriage, religious figures are “not discussing passages and scripture that involve Jesus.” He said that the discussion needed to go back to what Jesus is doing in the Gospel and living it out daily as Christians.
“It’s a matter of good interpretation,” he said. “And I would say good interpretation favors the side of love and acceptance over division and exclusion.”
Woodzicka said this bill is problematic because of how religion has been used historically. Sayers agreed, saying that scripture has been used to discriminate against different groups.
“When we think about people trying to use scripture to discriminate against specific groups, it’s not that long ago that the civil rights movement was a live issue,” Sayers said. “And now we are seeing some of those same arguments being transferred over to the LGBTQ community, and seem to be following a similar trajectory.”
Woodzicka and Baldridge both agreed that this is similar to the 1960s where it was acceptable to turn away people of color from businesses.
“[Businesses] are allowed to refuse service in certain instances, but usually that is because the customer is violent or doing something negative,” Baldridge said. This bill would let businesses refuse customers service just for “wanting to live their life.”
Baldridge specifically said that this bill would worsen the vibe in the LGBT community. She said that a law similar to the one proposed would add another layer that people have to worry about.
“You used to have to worry about violence being done against you,” she said. “[Now] when people want to buy something or eat something they have to think at that level of awareness, and thinking about something they shouldn’t have to think about.”
Sayers agreed. He said that the LGBTQ community in Rockbridge County and Lexington are already “afraid to be themselves.”
“These people do not feel fully welcomed in society, in the church, in business,” he said. “And this would inscribe in law the very discrimination they already fear.”
Woodzicka said the most problematic thing that would result from House Bill 773 would be the message it sends. Woodzicka said that the law would establish a norm that people would follow, which would lead to an increase in discrimination.
“It’s not just the act, it’s the message,” she said. “It releases people’s true feelings. It’s sending the larger message that this is a group we can discriminate against.”
Sayers said that he could see the trend of inclusion be reversed because of people who are vocal and in power that “want to stop things in their tracks.”
“Those of us who want to defend the rights and freedoms of our gay neighbors then need to speak out,” he said.