Del. Chris Head put in the first religious liberty bill of the upcoming General Assembly session Monday, introducing a measure seeking to clarify that pastors and others certified to perform marriages aren’t agents of the state.
House Bill 19 doesn’t directly mention the debate over same-sex marriage. But Head, R-Botetourt County, said it was written with that issue in mind.
“The purpose of this bill is simply to absolutely clarify that pastors of churches shouldn’t be compelled to perform a ceremony that violates the tenets of their religion; nothing more,” he said.
Head described the bill as a modest, preventive step aimed at heading off disputes before they start. There have been no reports in Virginia of clergy being pushed to perform marriages since last year’s federal court ruling.
“I don’t think it will be very controversial, quite honestly,” he said of the legislation. “Because it’s not about trying to remove rights from anybody; it’s about trying to protect rights [for pastors].”
Head, himself an ordained Baptist minister though he no longer works as a pastor, said HB 19 is the only bill he plans to introduce on the issue.
Monday was the first day lawmakers could file legislation for the 2016 session.
Head’s bill — one of three he put in Monday — states that ministers and other wedding officiants can’t be required to take an oath to be certified to perform marriages and will not be considered officers of the state government.
James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, said it wasn’t immediately clear to him how that alters the status quo for churches on the issue of same-sex marriage.
“But if that was his intent, this bill is unnecessary,” he said. “Because our separation of church and state and our freedom of religion already allow churches to decide who they marry and who they don’t marry.
“When it comes to marriage, I think everybody has been clear that each faith is allowed to decide.”
But Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia, said the bill offers a welcome added safeguard.
“I think this bill simply provides some distance and separation between the clergy and the state to ensure that the government can’t compel a member of the clergy, regardless of their faith perspective, to violate their deeply held beliefs about marriage,” she said.
“Some have voiced concerns that the current process makes them feel kind of like agents of the state, and they’re concerned about where that goes.”
Other bills dealing with questions surrounding religious liberty and same-sex marriage are expected, though Head’s was the only proposal announced as of Monday.
Cobb said the Family Foundation is working with lawmakers on other measures but wasn’t immediately prepared to release any details.
Head’s bill may go beyond the clergy to include laypeople who are certified as civil marriage officiants. It wasn’t immediately clear what, if any, obligation that group faces now to perform same-sex marriages.
Head was the first Roanoke Valley representative to file legislation for the 2016 session. His other proposals Monday included a bill clarifying that franchisees and their staff are not considered employees of the larger franchisor.
He also filed a memorial resolution commemorating the life of Roanoke entrepreneur and civic leader Allen Oat Woody III, who died in July.
Head plans to file additional bills in the coming weeks. The 2016 session is set to start on Jan. 13.