With the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic freedom to marry decision behind us, check out the last blog in our series about the history and real world impact of marriage equality.
By Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director
It’s been three weeks. The dust has settled. Freedom to marry is the law of the land! The scope of this historic victory makes it hard to imagine that there is still work to do to ensure equality for LGBT Virginians. Nevertheless, there is, and lots of it.
With equal marriage rights now secured, opponents of equality for LGBT Virginians have begun arguing that recognizing LGBT equality and protecting LGBT people from discrimination based on who they are somehow threatens the equality opponents’ religious liberty. This is no more true now than when opponents of racial equality employed similar arguments to justify racial discrimination when the 1964 Civil Rights Act was being debated and first implemented. In the 1960s, for example, some restaurant owners argued nondiscrimination laws violated religious beliefs they said required the separation of people of different races. As civil rights leader Julian Bond has said of the most recent attempt to cloak discrimination under the veil of religion, “I have seen discrimination. I have stood inside businesses that would not serve me because of my race, and I have been told that the rights of those business owners were more important than mine. I countered that logic then, as I do now. We have no crisis of religious discrimination; we have a crisis of fear. I stand against these bills and with those who are fighting to stop them. I refuse to allow discrimination to cloak itself in a shroud of faith. I refuse to give into fear.”
The fear inciting arguments offered by some Virginia legislators in response to the affirmation of marriage equality ring particularly hollow here in the Commonwealth. The same legislators making these arguments have stood firmly against affording LGBT Virginians any statutory protection against discrimination on the job, in housing or in public accommodations. They have done so even though the Virginia Code declares such discrimination with respect to race and religion (among other factors) to be against the public policy of Virginia. And, they have done so even though federal laws enforced by the Virginia Human Rights Commission bar such discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, sex, age, and disability without anyone’s religious liberty being offended.
The legislators now claiming religious liberty is under siege already have led successful efforts to license discrimination against LGBT Virginians in publicly funded adoption and foster care programs, at public colleges and by licensed genetic counselors. Under their leadership, the General Assembly has passed three measures authorizing state-licensed and, in two cases state-funded, discrimination in the past four years:
- 2012 – State-funded adoption and foster care agencies may refuse to serve prospective parents or needy children based on their “religious or moral convictions or principles” and no state or local government entity can refuse to contract with a child-placing agency that discriminates based on religion;
- 2013 – Public colleges and universities must 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; and
- 2014 – Genetic counselors may refuse service to patients based on the counselors’ “deeply held moral or religious beliefs,” and the law grants them complete immunity from suit even if their decision to do so results in actual physical harm to their patient.
Religious freedom in America means that we all have a right to our religious beliefs, but this does not give us the right to use our religion to discriminate against and impose those beliefs on others who do not share them. The ACLU of Virginia has a history second to none of protecting religious free exercise in Virginia. The National ACLU web page titled “ACLU Defense of Religious Practice and Expression” contains a long list of examples of the ACLU’s work to give full meaning to our constitutionally protected right to exercise our religion free from government intervention. The list on the national website includes many examples from Virginia, such as the ACLU of Virginia’s support, last year, of a community college group’s right to proselytize on campus and an organization’s right to hold a National Day of Prayer event on Capitol Square.
In addition to protecting religious freedom and halting efforts to authorize the use religion to discriminate, we’re also working to ensure that LGBT Virginians have affirmative statutory protection from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. That’s right – it’s 2015 and our General Assembly continues to refuse to grant LGBT Virginians any statutory protection from being fired from their job or denied housing just because of who they are.
Therefore, while we celebrate marriage equality for the tremendous victory that it is, we also remain focused on the work ahead. We will not rest until all Virginians enjoy equal rights and equal dignity, and we hope you will join us in this effort! No Virginian should face discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Want to stay informed about our work to secure equality for all Virginians? Continue to follow our blog, and check out our Facebook and Twitter for breaking news! And, sign up to be a grassroots advocate.