By Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, ACLU of Virginia Executive Director
It was all over the news. Just a few weeks ago, 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.
Last month, the Virginia General Assembly passed SB 330 and HB 612, two seemingly harmless bills designed to license genetic counselors. But, buried in the back of the bills is a so-called “conscience clause,” a provision that will enable generic counselors to refuse service to patients based on the counselors’ “deeply held moral or religious beliefs.” Discrimination under the cloak of religion is nothing new. In the 1960s, restaurant owners used this same rhetoric to challenge integration. The fallacy of this rhetoric is as clear now as it was 50 years ago. Religious freedom is a shield intended to protect a person’s own rights. It is not a sword to be used to discriminate against others. This legislation turns our personal religious freedom on its head, making it a tool for discrimination.
The genetic counselors’ licensing law will allow a state licensed professional 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 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.
Proponents see this legislation as a model. They seek to extend the license to discriminate to all professions and businesses in Virginia. As The Family Foundation stated, “[i]f genetic counselors can be protected from being forced to violate their conscience, it follows that all other professions should receive equal protection.” Legal discrimination has no place in our Commonwealth.
Unlike many issues, there is no ambiguity here. You either support discrimination or oppose it. Governor McAuliffe has the opportunity to stand on the right side of history, to tell advocates who want to give all Virginia professionals and businesses a license to discriminate – “it stops here!”
Urge the Governor to take a stand and veto SB 330. Tell him “it stops here!”