- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Virginia House of Delegates on Tuesday passed a bill that would prevent state agencies from punishing people or organizations that discriminate against gay and transgender people, as well as people who have had extramarital sex.

Delegate C. Todd Gilbert, Shenandoah Republican and the bill’s lead sponsor, said the “Government Nondiscrimination Act” is a statement in favor of religious freedom, which he said is “constantly under attack by shifting cultural winds that blow as a headwind against us.”

Opponents said it is a “license to discriminate” that would have wide-ranging consequences.

But supporters pointed to reports from across the country of businesses being punished for refusing to provide services — often wedding services — for same-sex couples.

The legislation cleared the Republican-controlled House 56-41. Seven Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the bill, two did not vote, and one was absent.

The bill would prevent the state from denying tax benefits, grants, contracts, loans, scholarships or jobs to companies or persons in retaliation for discriminating against gay couples, transgender people or unmarried couples.

Delegate Mark D. Sickles, Fairfax Democrat, teared up during an emotional speech on the House floor as he urged his colleagues to consider their votes.

“I think we have to choose whether we want to treat everybody equally or not,” said Mr. Sickles, one of two openly gay members of the legislature. “It’s as simple as that. The law is the same for everybody. So this is a vote that you get to make for the rest of your life right now. Are we going to be fair to everybody in Virginia or not?”

Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has said that he would veto the measure if it clears the Senate and reaches his desk.

Despite assurances that the bill would not become law, Mr. Sickles said the House vote would send a message to businesses considering moving to Virginia.

“They don’t need to come here, where people are second-class citizens and we pass legislation like this,” he said, receiving applause and a standing ovation from House Democrats.

Mr. Gilbert argued that gay and transgender rights activists are pushing their agenda on those with deeply held religious beliefs, and defended the bill as a “reasonable accommodation.”

“They are not satisfied with equality,” he said. “And they will not be satisfied until people of faith are driven out of discourse, are made to cower, are made to be in fear of speaking their minds, of living up to their deeply held religious beliefs. They want us driven out.”

He said his bill tries to anticipate further strikes against those with religious convictions. He also received a standing ovation from members of his party.

Democrats said the provision preventing punishment of those who discriminate against unmarried couples would create a legal morass.

Delegate Vivian E. Watts, Fairfax County Democrat, said the bill is “badly written” and would allow discrimination far beyond those who don’t want to provide services for same-sex weddings.

Delegate Scott Taylor, a Republican candidate for Congress, said that he appreciates the intent to protect religious freedom, but the bill is too broad for him to support.

The bill was one of many that passed as part of crossover, the last day that each chamber can pass its own bills. Other bills approved Tuesday:

The House passed a bill 53-46 that would allow students with disabilities to use public funding for private school tuition. Parents of disabled students could take some of their children’s share of school funding and apply it to private school textbooks and tuition.

The Senate approved 37-2 a bill to make it easier for people with severe epilepsy to procure cannabis-based therapeutic oils. The oils can be bought legally in Colorado but cannot be shipped to other states in violation of federal law.

The House unanimously passed a bill to ensure that custodial guardians allow their incapacitated charges to see their family and friends. Kerri Kasem, daughter of late radio personality Casey Kasem, has pushed for similar bills to be introduced in 12 other states, including Maryland.

The Senate passed 20-19 a bill to legalize Airbnb, a popular short-term renting service. The bill, a version of which was passed by the House last week, would provide a statewide regulatory structure for the rental website that would supersede local attempts to ban Airbnb, but would allow localities to pass minor ordinances to ensure the rentals don’t become neighborhood nuisances. However, the Senate killed a bill that would enforce tax collection from Airbnb.

The House approved two measures that would allow the state to petition Congress to call a nationwide constitutional convention to impose limits on the federal government’s power and spending. A second resolution would call for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would require Congress to pass a balanced budget.

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