October 6, 2020 — A group of Christian ministries and a photographer are challenging a new Virginia law, S.B. 868, for infringement of their religious freedom and belief. Known as the Virginia Values Act, the bill was signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam on April 11, 2020 and became effective on July 1. The act specifically abolishes “any type of discrimination aimed at LGBT persons in housing, public and private employment, public accommodations, and access to credit,” as stated on Gov. Northam’s website.
“This legislation sends a strong, clear message — Virginia is a place where all people are welcome to live, work, visit, and raise a family,” asserts Northam. “We are building an inclusive Commonwealth where there is opportunity for everyone, and everyone is treated fairly. No longer will LGBTQ Virginians have to fear being fired, evicted, or denied service in public places because of who they are.”
Churches and religious individuals fear that their religious rights and freedom are not included in the new bill. In Calvary Road Baptist Church v. Herring, a lawsuit filed September 28, 2020, by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a faith-based group founded in 1994, plaintiffs Calvary Road Baptist Church, Community Fellowship Church, Community Christian Academy, and Care Net (a pregnancy resource and counseling center) allege that S.B. 868 forces them to “adopt a particular government ideology under threat of punishment” while purporting to “forbid discrimination based on sexual identity and gender discrimination.” The complaint specifically refers to H.B. 1429, a bill signed by Northam the day before he signed S.B. 868, which “[p]rohibits a health carrier from denying or limiting coverage or imposing additional cost sharing or other limitations or restrictions on coverage, under a health benefit plan for health care services that are ordinarily or exclusively available to covered individuals of one sex, to a transgender individual on the basis of the fact that the individual’s sex assigned at birth, gender identity, or gender otherwise recorded is different from the one to which such health services are ordinarily or exclusively available.”
According to the lawsuit, H.B. 1429 and S.B. 868 will force Christian ministries and outreach services, including churches, schools, and businesses, as well as individuals, to hire persons who “do not share and follow their beliefs on biblical marriage, sexuality and gender” and would also ban the ministries from “directly or indirectly communicating biblical beliefs on marriage, sexuality, and gender,” forcing them to choose between their religious beliefs and insurmountable fines for violating the new law.
In Updegrove v. Herring, Bob Updegrove of Bob Updegrove Photography, a service that specializes in photographing weddings, also chose to fight the new legislation and filed suit against Virginia’s attorney general. Updegrove is also represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom. Speaking on behalf of their clients, Denise Harle, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, stated on Monday, October 5:
Our clients offer spiritual guidance, education, pregnancy support, and athletic opportunities to their communities because of the faith that inspires them,” states Denise Harle, Senior Counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom. “Virginia’s new law forces these ministries to abandon their convictions or pay up to $100,000 for each violation, in direct contradiction to the Virginia Constitution and the Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The government cannot force a religious organization to violate its own beliefs. We hope that the court will recognize that our clients have the freedom to choose who will further their mission to provide religious services.