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Religion doesn't make it ok to discriminate
Religion Doesn't Legitimize Discrimination as a Matter of "Conscience"

 Plaintiffs in the federal suit over Virginia's gay marriage ban after a hearing in the case last week in Richmond.
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Date published: 5/18/2014


--Earlier this year, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed legislation that would have allowed businesses to deny service to gay and lesbian customers. The legislation rightly received national attention. For many of us, it conjured up memories of a time when people were refused service at hotels and lunch counters because of the color of their skin or the God they worship.

While the national media attention focused on Arizona, however, Virginia has been moving in this direction for years. This year the commonwealth took another step toward legitimizing the idea that religion gives one a license to discriminate.

In the mid-1970s, after Virginia was sued for failing to conform its abortion laws to the federal Constitution, the Virginia legislature passed a "conscience clause." This caveat allowed hospitals and health care professionals to refuse to offer this medical service to Virginia women based on "personal, ethical, moral or religious grounds" even when the woman's life is at stake.

In 2012, the Virginia legislature passed a "conscience clause" that allows state-funded adoption and foster care agencies to refuse to serve prospective parents or needy children based on the state-funded agencies' "religious or moral convictions or policies." This applies even to agencies receiving millions in state and local tax dollars and those performing public functions on behalf of foster children who are legally the commonwealth's children.

In 2013, the Virginia legislature passed a law that requires public colleges and universities to recognize and fund student political and religious organizations. The law holds even if the organizations intentionally discriminate against gay or lesbian students (or people of different faiths or parties) in their membership or leadership. The argument maintains that their religious or political convictions compel such discrimination.

And, in 2014, a "conscience clause" was written into otherwise harmless legislation to license genetic counselors (SB 330, HB 612 ) to refuse service to patients based on the counselors' "deeply held moral or religious beliefs" and shield those same counselors from damages.

All of these so-called "conscience clauses" have one thing in common--they all allow a state-licensed or state-funded person or organization to engage in intentional and purposeful discrimination against any person or class of persons based on their "moral," "religious" or, in one case, "political" beliefs.

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Religion doesn't make it ok to discriminate

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga is executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.