Four religious ministries are suing the state over two new Virginia laws they claim infringe upon their rights to assert their religious beliefs—and to hire, fire and provide health insurance for their employees based on those convictions.
On Sept. 28, the Alexandria-based Calvary Road Baptist Church, the Staunton-based Community Fellowship Church, the Charlottesville-based Community Christian Academy and the Lansdowne-based Care Net pregnancy center filed a lawsuit against Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, Senior Assistant Attorney General Thomas Payne and the State Corporation Commission in Loudoun County Circuit Court alleging that the passage of Senate Bill 868, sometimes referred to as the Virginia Values Act, and House Bill 1429 threaten their religious freedoms.
The Senate bill prohibits employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity when hiring or firing employees. The House bill prohibits an employer from denying or limiting healthcare coverage to a transgender employee—meaning it would require an employer’s insurance plan to cover “medically necessary transition-related care” such as mental health services, hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery if an employee opts to undergo those types of procedures.
Both pieces of legislation became law on July 1.
The ministries claim that under the new law established through passage of the Senate bill, they are restricted from enforcing male- and female-specific dress codes and bathroom/locker room arrangements; using masculine pronouns when referring to males and feminine pronouns when referring to females; publishing on their websites information outlining their views on sexual identity and marriage; and firing employees if they publicly support causes contrary to the ministries’ religious missions or beliefs.
The ministries also assert that if they were to fire an employee based on their poor performance, that employee could claim that their sexual identity was a motivating factor in their termination.
“That is a dangerous provision that can be weaponized against employers who act in good faith in making employment decisions,” the ministries wrote in their complaint.
The ministries claim they intentionally employ staff and recruit volunteers who “further their respective Christian missions” and that the new law now labels those liberties as discrimination.
They point out that state legislators rejected a floor amendment to the Senate Bill that would have included a religious exemption clause and claim that the legislation was prompted by “religious animus” among those legislators, who deemed religious views as being “unworthy of legal protection.”
The ministries assert that the new law “imposes burdens on them that aren’t imposed on other organizations with different views.”
“This differential treatment makes it harder for the Ministries to promote their programs and services … and imposes a reputational harm and stigma on their ministries that these other organizations do not suffer,” they wrote. “The Ministries would simply like to enjoy these same freedoms themselves.”
As for the new law established through the passage of the House Bill, the ministries claim they must now choose between two options—go against their religious beliefs by paying for puberty blockers, cross-sex hormone therapies, sex reassignment surgeries and other gender-transition procedures and “face the threat of prosecution and unlimited fines if they fail to comply,” or refuse to offer their employees health insurance plans at all.
The ministries assert that the passage of both bills constitutes a violation of their right to free exercise of religion under the Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Virginia Constitution; a violation of their freedom of speech under the Virginia Constitution; and a violation of their right to due process under the Virginia Constitution.
The Virginia Constitution establishes that “… the right to be free from any governmental discrimination upon the basis of religious conviction, race, color, sex, or national origin shall not be abridged, except that the mere separation of the sexes shall not be considered discrimination.”
The ministries also assert the new laws violate the Virginia Constitution Establishment Clause, which establishes that “… all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion …” and that “… all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion …” and that “… the General Assembly shall not prescribe any religious test whatever ….”
They are asking the court to order the state to issue a declaration establishing that Senate Bill 868 does not apply to them because of their religious exemptions and a declaration stating that the bills violate the ministries’ rights. They also are asking the court to order a permanent injunction to stop the state from enforcing Senate Bill 868 or House Bill 1429 against them or other “similarly situated religious organizations.”
“A government that can infringe upon and punish the Ministries’ beliefs on biblical marriage and sexuality today can just as easily violate others’ beliefs tomorrow,” the ministries wrote in their complaint. “Unless defendants are enjoined, the Ministries will continue to suffer irreparable harm and economic injury.”
The state has yet to file a response to the ministries’ complaint. Under Virginia law, a defendant has 21 days after being served with the plaintiff’s civil complaint to file an answer with the court.