The House of Delegates in Virginia has just passed a bill that will allow organisations and businesses to claim religious exemptions to the state’s anti-discrimination law, allowing them to refuse housing and shelter to anyone who violates their deeply held beliefs.
If the bill becomes law, it will give people the right to refuse to sell or rent a house to LGBTQ+ individuals or to exclude them from homeless shelters by claiming that these individuals are in violation of religious principles.
It is appalling that a bill like this would pass in one of the houses in Virginia, a state that until last year was a leader in advancing LGBTQ+ rights in the South of the US. In April 2020, the state passed the Virginia Values Act, a law that expanded anti-discrimination protections to include LGBTQ+ people.
HB 753, which would allow faith-based entities that provide services to the public to use their religious beliefs as an excuse to discriminate against others, passed the VA House today.
Let's make sure it doesn't get past the Senate. pic.twitter.com/nNS4hNvDAY
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) February 15, 2022
Last year, Virginia also became the first US state in the South to ban the so-called “panic defense”, a legal strategy that allows a jury to rule that a victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression is to blame for the perpetrator’s violent behaviour. In the same year, they modernised their HIV criminalisation law and established a Virginia LGBTQ+ Advisory Board.
The dramatic changes stem from Republicans taking back control of the House of Delegates, as they now appear to be trying to roll back the rights and protections that the LGBTQ+ community in Virginia fought for.
Cathryn Oakley, Human Rights Campaign State Legislative Director, issued a statement on this bill saying “Anti-equality legislators in Virginia have repeatedly pushed legislation this session that would allow discrimination including against LGBTQ+ individuals”. She also confirmed that “These repeated efforts have been especially prevalent in the House of Delegates, which has a slim anti-equality majority following last year’s election.”
Today, I signed legislation creating a new advisory board that will ensure the LGBTQ+ community has a permanent voice in Virginia's executive branch—no matter who is governor. ?️?
— Governor Ralph Northam (@VAGovernor73) April 26, 2021
The only positive news is that the bill is not expected to pass in the Senate, where Democrats still hold a majority and have sworn to reject any kind of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. However, the fact that Virginia went from being a leader in the protection of LGBTQ+ rights to these attempts at discrimination in a matter of months shows how fragile those rights are and how easily they can be taken back.
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