VCC supports religious freedom laws

RICHMOND - The Virginia Catholic Conference is urging the General Assembly to pass legislation to protect individuals and groups that have religious objections to same-sex marriage.

Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, stood with lawmakers Jan. 25 as they discussed various bills they said would ensure religious freedom. The measures included House Bill 773, sponsored by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

Also called the Government Nondiscrimination Act, it would prevent state and local governments from discriminating against a person or organization that believes marriage is between a man and a woman. The bill also would prevent the denial of government grants, licenses, contracts and tax breaks for those who, based on their religious beliefs, deny services to same-sex couples.

"Freedom of religion is not just about the freedom to worship. It's about allowing the ministries and individuals who are animated by core beliefs to put those beliefs into practice without being punished for them," Caruso said at a press conference with lawmakers at the state Capitol.

"We support this bill because we cherish our nation's first freedom, which is religious liberty. A fundamental teaching of the Catholic Church is that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. This belief, like every other belief, was never meant to be confined to the four walls of the house of worship. Beliefs are instead what guide our actions, our decisions and the paths we walk every day wherever we are."

Caruso noted that when Pope Francis visited Washington in September, the pontiff called religious freedom "one of America's most precious possessions."

"We are all called to be vigilant precisely as good citizens to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it," Caruso said. "Today we are here to do our part - to be good citizens and preserve this precious freedom."

Gilbert, Sen. Charles Carrico Sr. of Galax and other Republican lawmakers called the news conference to discuss legislation they had filed in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last June to legalize same-sex marriages.

The bills would allow ministers and groups to refuse to participate in same-sex weddings on the basis of their religious convictions. Otherwise, some Virginians would be forced to offer services that go against their core beliefs, according to supporters of the legislation.

"The heavy hand of government is coercing businesses to participate in same-sex unions," said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia.

"Religious nonprofits, ministries and schools are the next target of discrimination - something that even the Obama administration acknowledged during its oral arguments."

Under Carrico's Senate Bill 41, a marriage officiant wouldn't be required to marry same-sex couples. The bill also states that no religious organization would have to provide accommodations, facilities, goods or other services for a wedding or marriage if the action would violate the group's religious beliefs. The legislation is awaiting action by the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology.

"Our founders got it right," Carrico said. "They didn't want to infringe upon those deep-held beliefs. They didn't expect the government to step in and say to an individual, 'Because you have this deep-held belief that you have to do X, Y and Z.'"

Caleb Dalton, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said the court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage is problematic. "Policies that marginalize and punish diverse views create intolerance, disrespect and strife amongst citizens."

Gilbert added, "Fundamentally, I think all Americans agree that nobody should be forced to adhere to a particular belief system if they don't choose to."

HB 773 has been assigned to the House General Laws Committee. Also at the press conference, lawmakers discussed:

•HB 19, filed by Del. Christopher Head, R-Roanoke. Under this bill, ministers and other people authorized to perform marriages would not be required to take an oath, and they would not be considered an officer of the commonwealth. The bill is pending in the House Courts of Justice Committee.

•HB 791, sponsored by Del. Les Adams, R-Chatham. It asserts that religious rights are "the natural and unalienable rights of mankind and this declaration shall remain the policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia." Last week, a subcommittee of the House General Laws Committee unanimously recommended approval of this measure.

"These bills are targeted to protect that religious freedom that each and every person has and believes in; that spirit within them that drives them to do the moral right things," Carrico said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016