- The Washington Times - Friday, July 16, 2021

An attorney representing several Virginia churches and allied ministries says they’ll appeal a Friday ruling that blunts their challenge to the Virginia Values Act.

Attorney Denise Harle told The Washington Times that the case is “all about government hostility towards people of faith.”

“That alone is unconstitutional, whether or not someone’s been prosecuted, or something’s been enforced,” she said. “Laws on the books that are targeting certain beliefs or targeting certain concerns are unconstitutional on their face. That’s one of our claims. It absolutely is valid. And it’s one that we hope to present on appeal.”

Ms. Harle said she was uncertain of when an appeal would be filed.

The ministries sued the state over what they consider unconstitutional provisions in the VVA that would restrict them from stating beliefs about marriage and human sexuality on their websites, and require them to hire employees whose lifestyles are inconsistent with the ministries’ beliefs.

Ms. Harle, a senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, represented Calvary Road Baptist Church, Community Fellowship Church, Community Christian Academy, and CareNet in a  video-based hearing before 20th Circuit Court Judge James E. Plowman. The plaintiffs filed against Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, state Human Rights Director R. Thomas Payne II, and the State Corporation Commission.

In upholding the state’s call to dismiss the VVA challenges, Judge Plowman said the decision “is purely a legal issue” unrelated to the plaintiff’s main concerns.

“This has nothing to do with the underlying merits of the case or whether there may be an actual controversy in the future,” Judge Plowman said. “I don’t see it right now.”

But a companion challenge to a measure requiring health insurance will proceed under the ruling Friday, because the state’s motion to dismiss the matter was miscategorized, the judge ruled. 

That measure, House Bill 1429, would require health insurers operating in the state to include coverage for medications and procedures that assist transgendered individuals in their transitions, regardless of any employer’s religious objections to such measures.

During the 32-minute hearing, Judge Plowman, a former Loudoun County commonwealth’s attorney, first removed the State Corporation Commission from the case. He affirmed a claim by assistant state Solicitor General Jessica Merry Samuels that Virginia law does not allow state circuit courts to act against the commission.

Ms. Harle argued that since the groups have “removed religious speech from [their] websites because of the act’s publication bans,” that is a harm that can be litigated.

“Plus, there’s imminent harm, because the Act gives the attorney general the ability without notice to file a civil lawsuit this afternoon against the ministry’s policies and practices,” Ms. Harle told the court.

She said that without “a binding official statement” that religious groups wouldn’t be prosecuted under the VVA’s provisions, her clients “are sitting in the jaws of a trap that the government has set, and the government refuses to release them.”

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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