Legal Discrimination Is Already here in VA, And It Will Probably Get Worse Next Year
During the 2014 session of Virginia’s legislature two bills were passed, HB 612 and SB 330, to license Genetic Counselors, the bills sailed through legislation and included a detrimental addition, a ‘conscience clause.’
Under the clause, Genetic Counselors are exempt from providing care to clients if it violates their deeply hold religious or moral beliefs. In layman’s terms, counselors have been given the right under this law to refuse service to gay, lesbian or unwed couples under the pretense of religious objections.
It also allows the individual to withhold a patient’s test result if they suspect the information might lead to her having an abortion.
This is not the first instance of individuals or organizations attempting to find a loophole in discrimination laws under the guise of religious freedom. In Arizona, the “anti-gay” bill, which would allow merchants to withhold service to customers who violated shop owner’s religious beliefs, was vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer, but only after intense media scrutiny and debate.
To help understand how these new “religious freedom” laws impact us here in Virginia, the Central Virginia Rainbow Partnership hosted a public meeting to discuss the potential dangers that this bill poses to the community at large.
Bary Hausrath, a lawyer who deals almost entirely with LGBTQ clients, opened the meeting by describing the nature of a conscience clause.
A relatively new innovation, the clause can potentially allow an individual who is subject to any type of law, whether its licensing or otherwise, to refuse services or take on clients if doing so would violate a deeply held religious belief.
This protection can even be expanded to include moral beliefs. These clauses are being called “dangerous to the community” because they make it difficult to concretely define what violates a moral belief.
But the birth of these laws stems from a bill introduced in 1993, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It was enacted to prevent laws from violating a person’s right to exercise their religion. While initially the Act only existed at a federal level, states have recently begun to introduce mirror bills to their state legislations.
The Arizona ‘Anti-Gay’ bill is an example of a state Religious Freedom Act.
Several other states have also proposed mirror bills into state legislation.
“The general reason that states are freaking out to have this done, is because conservatives are realizing that they can’t stop marriage equality from happening. the real danger is the minor variations,” said Hausrath.
In response to the 2014 General Assembly session, the conservative group The Family Foundation has hailed the passage of the laws as a benchmark for conscience rights in Virginia. “If genetic counselors can be protected from being forced to violate their conscience, it follows that all other professions should receive equal protection,” said the Family Foundation in a press release shortly after the bills passed VA’s House and Senate.
Similarly, Idaho has passed a conscience clause which offers broad protection for anyone who is licensed in any sort of profession.
“It then goes on to say that you can refuse to provide any sort of care other than emergency medical care if its against your deeply held moral or religious beliefs,” said Hausrath.
To prevent this from happening Executive Director of Equality Virginia James Parrish, shared some ideas on what people can do locally. Drawing from information derived from focus groups, Parrish discussed the difficult landscape ahead when dealing with the conscience clause and the ‘conflicted middle.’
The conflicted middle, as defined by the poll results, are individuals who fell in between individuals who supported marriage equality and individuals who opposed it.
The results proved the middle, was often indecisive on their stance for conscience clauses. One question asked, if marriage is legal for gay and lesbian couples in their state, then businesses who offer wedding services should have to serve them like any other customer. In response, 68% of the group agreed. However, 47% also said that our country was founded on the principle of religious freedom, therefore people do not have to violate their religious views if they don’t agree with the marriage. “Which means in this focus group 15% of people agreed with both statements, there is your conflicted middle,” said Parrish.
The situation, according to Parrish, becomes more concerning when conscience clause advocates put a face to the issue. “Once the public sees their face, hears their story, they begin to empathize. They sympathize with people struggling,” said Parrish.
It becomes harder to sway the middle when the grandmother who loves gay couples, but wants to protect the sanctity of marriage, shares her story said Parish.
Because of this, Equality Virginia has developed three ways to frame the message to individuals on the fence with the issue. Reminding the middle about:
1. Freedom, a fundamental American Value
2. The Golden Rule – treat others the way you want to be treated
3. Marriage commitment – focus on the bigger picture, marrying to share love and commitment.
These conscious clause bills are sure to rear their heads again in the 2015 GA, where a republican dominated House and Senate will face the difficult questions much like the focus groups experienced. EV and GayRVA will continue to track these issues as they arise.
Top image via Equality Virginia Facebook
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