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Religious Groups Sue Virginia Over Law Protecting Gay Rights

October 5, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Alexandria Federal Courthouse. (Photo by Dan McCue)

RICHMOND, Va. – Religious groups and a wedding photographer are suing the state of Virginia over a new law that bans discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender persons.

The law is directed primarily against discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, such as restaurants and stores. Violators could be fined $50,000 for each offense.

The plaintiffs say the Virginia Values Act forces them to violate their own convictions. They call it an infringement upon their First Amendment rights to religious freedom.

“Now the very essence of these ministries is in jeopardy,” the lawsuit by the church groups says.

The law also bans discrimination on the basis of race, religion, disability and status as a veteran. It took effect July 1.

“But rather than protect values, the Act forces people of faith to adopt a particular government ideology under threat of punishment,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit was filed in Loudoun County Circuit Court by two churches, a religious school and a pregnancy center. It also says the law could compel them to hire employees who do not share their religious beliefs.

The medical benefits they are required to offer employees could be used for sex reassignment surgery, despite the churches’ preachings against it, the lawsuit says.

The plaintiffs are represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit organization based in Scottsdale, Ariz. 

“Virginia’s new law forces these ministries to abandon and adjust their convictions or pay crippling fines — in direct violation of the Virginia Constitution and other state laws,” an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom said in a statement. “Such government hostility toward people of faith has no place in a free society.”

A second lawsuit filed this week by wedding photographer Bob Updegrove argues the law could make him photograph same-sex weddings despite his moral opposition to them.

Updegrove also is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom for his lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

Jonathan Scruggs, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, called the Virginia Values Act unfair to photographers.

“The government cannot demand that artists create content that violates their deepest convictions,” Scruggs said in a statement posted on the Alliance Defending Freedom’s website. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that churches cannot be required to hire someone outside their faith as a leader or clergy. However, they cannot use religious affiliation as a basis for rejecting applicants for non-religious jobs, such as a janitor or cafeteria worker.

Churches also can restrict use of their buildings or other facilities to their members, the Supreme Court has ruled. They cannot legally exclude their members because of their sexual orientation.

The strongest support for the Virginia Values Act came from the gay rights group Equality Virginia. The group claims to have other supporters among a coalition of religious leaders.

“Protecting LGBTQ Virginians from discrimination does not threaten [religious] freedom,” Equality Virginia said in a statement. “That’s why people of faith across the state advocated with us in support of the Virginia Values Act—because of their deep faith—not in spite of it.”

The lawsuit names as defendants Virginia’s Democratic Attorney General Mark R. Herring and R. Thomas Payne II, director of the Virginia Division of Human Rights and Fair Housing.

A spokeswoman for Herring said he was reviewing the lawsuit and “looks forward to defending the Virginia Values Act in court against these attacks.”

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