On July 1, churches, Christian schools, and other religious ministries with theologically orthodox views on marriage will no longer be welcome in Virginia.
And if you are among those operating a ministry in accordance with your religious beliefs about marriage and human sexuality, the state has declared a sort-of legal “open season” on you. The first offense comes with a fine of up to $50,000. Subsequent offenses come with fines of up to $100,000!
The message is clear—Virginia will crush you if you disobey.
So what exactly does this Virginia law do? Because the "sexual orientation and gender identity" (SOGI) language is an addition to existing law, it isn’t easy for the public to see how they are impacted or how state law has changed.
But the changes in the law are significant and alarming. Let’s take a look at just a few of the implications for churches, Christian schools, and ministries.
1. If you make employment decisions based on your employees’ actions—which contradict your religious beliefs—you could be the target of a lawsuit.
Virginia’s law allows religious organizations to prefer applicants “of a particular religion. That should allow employers to hire those who not only agree with their religious beliefs but also abide by religious conduct standards. But not everyone sees it that way.
ADF and its allies asked the General Assembly to clarify religious employers’ freedom. They refused. As a result, if a ministry makes employment decisions based on behavior, it could be subject to a lawsuit.
2. Religious schools may be forbidden from only admitting students who align with the schools’ beliefs.
The ability for schools to remain religious is challenged when the law says schools cannot make admission decisions based on student conduct or their families’ religious beliefs. This is in direct opposition to the ethos of so many religious schools, because such a large part of the special environment of a religious education is dependent on the students’ peers and the community as a whole.
Religious schools must have the freedom to admit students and families who share its beliefs.
3. Ministries who offer housing may be forced to combine rooms for men and women.
The new law requires that housing providers allow males who identify as female be allowed to access sleeping spaces intended for women.
Laws like Virginia’s unnecessarily put women in harm’s way. In Alaska, government officials used a similar law to investigate a homeless shelter, Downtown Hope Center, which offers job skills training, daily meals, laundry, and clothing for any man or woman in need during the day—all free of charge. But because the Hope Center doesn’t allow males to stay at the women’s-only shelter at night—which provides a safe place for women who have escaped sex trafficking, domestic violence, rape and other emotional and physical abuse—the government went after this ministry and pressured it to accept men into its women’s only shelter.
Like this Anchorage law, Virginia’s law could be interpreted to include housing providers beyond women’s shelters—it might even impact college dorms.
4. The Virginia law may threaten free speech.
People may be forced to refer to customers, employees, and co-workers by pronouns for the opposite sex, or even by newly invented pronouns for neither sex. When conformity is the goal of the law—as it seems to be in this case—government officials may enforce the law contrary to what the Constitution requires.
The free-speech consequences of this law will be real. Just ask Peter Vlaming, who lost his job at a Virginia public school for following his conscience when it came to the use of pronouns. Peter offered a compromise that respected the student who identified as transgender, as well as his own beliefs, but that was not enough.
5. The law allows Virginia to hijack health plans.
Under this new law, the government is requiring insurance companies to include so-called “sex reassignment” interventions in the health plans they sell. There is no religious exemption. Churches and ministries will no longer be able to buy employee health insurance policies that reflect their religious beliefs.
Other states like California have already attempted to force churches to cover abortion in their health plans. It seems this tactic is now part of the routine playbook of weaponizing health insurance contrary to religious organizations’ beliefs.
Officials who enacted the Virginia law have revealed that they do not respect our constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. Sincerity and conviction—you can now check those at the Virginia border.
If you are considering ways in which you can help protect the religious freedom of your ministry or church, we invite you to learn more about ADF Ministry Alliance or ADF Church Alliance. Through membership, ADF attorneys can help you navigate the religious freedom implications of decisions made by your leadership team. In this Virginia situation and others, we will be advocating on behalf of your religious freedom.