Gilbert faces backlash on religious freedom bill

Todd Gilbert

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, has spent a week absorbing a backlash that he insists he knew was coming over his bill that would ban state agencies from penalizing those who take certain actions toward same sex couples, transgender people or those who have extramarital sex.

The bill passed the House of Delegates Tuesday, and the Senate is scheduled to vote on the measure today. Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has vowed a veto if it passes the General Assembly.

The legislation would prevent state agencies from acting against individuals or businesses that refuse services for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. For example, the state could not revoke the liquor license of a restaurant that requires transgender people to use a restroom reserved for their biological sex.

Gilbert has defended the bill as necessary to protecting the free exercise of religion by those who condemn certain sexual behaviors and express those beliefs through business practices that may involve refusing to serve some people.

Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the leadership of gay civil rights organizations, swiftly denounced the bill upon its passage Tuesday. They were joined the next day by a prominent Jewish civil rights organization, the Anti-Defamation League of the Washington, D.C., region.

The ADL blasted the bill as “an immoral, unconstitutional piece of legislation (that) gives private entities a license to discriminate based on their religious or moral opposition to marriage equality, extramarital sexual relations and transgender individuals.”

David Friedman, the ADL’s executive director in the Washington D.C. region, issued a written statement elaborating on his organization’s stance: “The ADL is an ardent advocate for religious freedom, but America’s protections for free exercise of religion were never intended to be used as a political tool to cause harm and discriminate against others. It is shameful that the Virginia House of Delegates chose to arm private entities with a license to treat some individuals as second-class citizens under the false guise of “liberty.”

Gilbert was unwavering Friday in replying to the ADL’s commentary.

“It is unfortunate that an organization originally dedicated to preventing the persecution of people of faith would so carelessly abandon any notion of protecting them,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert sounded a philosophical note in assessing the controversy generated by his proposal and a similar bill in the Senate.

“I fully expected the overstated shrieking from the other side,” Gilbert said. “What I’ve learned over the years is the closer you get to doing something that you view as good, the louder and more disgusting the attacks become.

“I’ve been called every name in the book in the last few day, but that’s part of the deal and part of the territory.”

He conceded McAuliffe’s veto threat and the feeble chance of an override will probably limit the bill’s impact to “an exercise in seeing where everyone stands on the issue.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com