Friday, February 10, 2017

Advancing bigotry through legislative ambiguity in Virginia

Nicholas J. Freitas
In a shameful display of bigotry, Virginia's House has advanced an anti-gay bill in the guise of “religious freedom.” Religious conservatives have found a new tool to indirectly overrule the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges: Intentional ambiguity.

Since the decision in Obergefell in June of 2015 we have seen a myriad of state bills that permit, and even encourage, discrimination against gay people. The Commonwealth of Virginia's effort is among the most pernicious due to a lack of specifics. It effectively permits anyone to discriminate against gay couples. They can demonstrate their disapproval by legally withholding goods and services with their actions all neatly packaged in scripture.

House Bill 2025 was conceived of by Delegate Nicholas J. Freitas. It cleared the House by a vote of 57 to 37 and is expected to clear the Senate (it is currently in committee). The bill reads as follows:
1. That the Code of Virginia is amended by adding a section numbered 57-2.03 as follows:

§ 57-2.03. Religious freedom; marriage.

A. For purposes of this section, unless the context requires a different meaning:

"Penalty" … (155 words)

"Person" means any (i) religious organization; (ii) organization supervised or controlled by or operated in connection with a religious organization; (iii) individual employed by a religious organization while acting in the scope of his paid or volunteer employment; (iv) successor, representative, agent, agency, or instrumentality of any of the foregoing; or (v) clergy member or minister.

B. No person shall be:

1. Required to participate in the solemnization of any marriage; or

2. Subject to any penalty [ , any civil liability, or any other action ] by the Commonwealth, or its political subdivisions or representatives or agents, solely on account of such person's belief, speech, or action in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.
Standard issue license to discriminate against gay people. So what is missing and why is it missing?

In section A, person means more than just an individual. What, exactly, is a religious organization? Does it at least have to be a non-profit entity exempt from federal income tax? Apparently not. Nor does it have to be affiliated with a house of worship. What is the legislative intent?

Perhaps of greater importance is the failure to define “participate” and “solemnization.” Every conservative Christian wedding vendor who wants to demonstrate disapproval of gay citizens will claim that they would be participating in the nuptials by virtue of providing after-dinner mints. Sponsors devoted 155 words to define “penalty” but none to define solemnization. Some would say that solemnization means the exchange of vows. Those intent on discriminating would claim that it includes the service, the reception and more.

In fact the same language could be used to discriminate against an interracial, inter-religious, Jewish or Muslim wedding. But I have another question. How could 57 lawmakers vote for the passage of a bill that is so obviously lacking in specifics? It is as if the intent is to allow a florist to discriminate without providing sufficient detail to be accused of allowing a florist to discriminate to shield themselves from opprobrium.

Governor Terry McAuliffe has announced that he will veto this bill should it come to his desk but some of the damage is already done. A majority of the commonwealth's legislators have publicly announced that gay citizens do not deserve the same protections, dignity and due process as all other citizens. In addition to making gay citizens second-class citizens, those legislators are acting out of religious devotion; something that is supposed to be immaterial to public policy. The clear absence of adult supervision is obvious.

Oddly enough, Mr. Freitas has an on-line degree in intelligence management.

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