Lawsuits challenge Virginia's sexual orientation protections

A conservative legal group has filed lawsuits challenging a new Virginia law that bars discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- A conservative legal group has filed lawsuits challenging a new Virginia law that bars discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The lawsuits filed this week in state and federal court by Alliance Defending Freedom argue that the new law infringes on their clients' religious freedoms.

In one case, a northern Virginia photographer filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Alexandria alleging that the law will compel him to photograph same-sex weddings in violation of his religious beliefs.

A second suit filed in Loudoun County Circuit Court says that the law will compel a nondenominational church to hire people who violate the church's beliefs against same-sex marriage and choosing a gender identity that differs from their biological sex.

Earlier this year, Virginia became the first southern state, other than Delaware, to extend anti-discrimination protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity. The legislation applies to housing, public or private employment, public spaces and credit transactions.

The law creates some exemptions for religious organizations, but Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, said they are insufficient, and that Virginia legislators rejected an amendment that would have strengthened the law's religious exemptions.

“Our clients offer spiritual guidance, education, pregnancy support, and athletic opportunities to their communities because of the religious beliefs that motivate them. But Virginia’s new law forces these ministries to abandon and adjust their convictions or pay crippling fines — in direct violation of the Virginia Constitution and other state laws," ADF lawyer Denise Harle said in a statement. "Such government hostility toward people of faith has no place in a free society.”

Charlotte Gomer, a spokeswoman for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who is named as a defendant in both lawsuits, said the complaints are being reviewed.

“Attorney General Herring believes that every Virginian has the right to be safe and free from discrimination no matter what they look like, where they come from, or who they love,” Gomer said.

When Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill into law in April, he said LGBTQ Virginians would “no longer ... have to fear being fired, evicted, or denied service in public places because of who they are.”

In the federal lawsuit, photographer Bob Updegrove says his photography is artwork that is entwined with his beliefs. His lawyers write that “Bob believes that God has called him to use his creative talents to promote messages that are at times counter-cultural in order to convey the truth about God” and that he can't create photographic art for a same-sex wedding without violating his religious beliefs.

Alliance Defending Freedom, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, has filed similar lawsuits this year in Minnesota, Washington state and Louisville, Kentucky.

Updegrove's case is similar to a 2018 Supreme Court case in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. While the court ruled in favor of the baker, it did so on narrow grounds that left the broader question in dispute.