While it was in session, the General Assembly passed a law protecting state and local government employees from being penalized by their employer for expressing their opinion about policy or proposals during public comment periods. According to a Monday email update, The Family Foundation asked for the bill after Loudoun County teacher Tanner Cross was fired from his position after he spoke against the district’s proposed transgender policy.
“If you’re a science teacher, and you don’t believe in evolution, that’s fine. But your job requires you to teach it, so you have to teach it; but on your own time, if you want to say evolution is BS, you can do that and you can’t be penalized for it. But you have to do your job,” bill sponsor Education Committee Chair Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) told a committee in February. “I’ll use the other example, the Pledge [of Allegiance.] A teacher doesn’t believe in the pledge, their job is when the day starts, as directed by the principal, to have their class stand up and say the Pledge. But on your own time, if you want to go out and speak against it, that’s your right. We can’t be penalized for it.”
Delegate Dawn Adams (D-Richmond) suggested that could be problematic if an employee was expressing ideas that undermine the mission of their employer. She highlighted the risk of social-media-amplified speech.
“Maybe you’re in charge of, I don’t know, the AIDS Project. So you go home, and you say, ‘I hate the same people that I’m serving, because it’s my deeply held belief.’ And then you go to this employment. How does that not undermine the faith of a public servant?” she asked.
Davis said the bill doesn’t protect all speech, just speech opposing a rule, or policy position.
“When you have a job, that job doesn’t own you 24-seven regardless of what I tell my aide sitting over there,” Davis said.
Adams said, “I just think that in state-based and local government, when you’re in a public servant’s position paid for by tax dollars, it is just so detrimental to expose your character, even though you’re totally entitled to it, and relate that to a public service agency.”
An early draft of the bill would also have blocked employees from being penalized for declining to speak a particular message that violates their beliefs or conscience; that clause didn’t make it into the final legislation.
The General Assembly also passed Delegate Irene Shin’s (D-Fairfax) HB 1063, which protects against discrimination for people wearing religious items.
Shin told a committee, “HB 1063 would make sure that a person seeking to buy a house, rent an apartment, or find employment that they couldn’t be discriminated against because they’re wearing a cross across their neck or a yarmulke or a headscarf.”
The Family Foundation President Victoria Cobb expressed surprise that the bill passed the General Assembly with little discussion.
“It seems that while most were focused on HB 753 (R-Adams, L.) and SB 177 (R-Peake) that attempted to protect the right of churches and other faith-based ministries to continue carrying out their uniquely religious mission under the Human Rights Act, HB 1063 was able to coast through the legislative process virtually unnoticed,” Cobb wrote in the update.
She said the bill could have far-reaching impact.
In a statement to The Virginia Star, Cobb explained, “This bill clarifies that ‘religion’ is more than just belief, it also includes expression and action as well, removing any potential ambiguity in law. It adds another layer of protection for Virginans to fully exercise their religion.”
She continued, “We have already seen attacks against Christians in their expression of faith; such as when a local realtor was forced to defend herself against claims that she violated fair housing statutes for including a Bible verse on her website and the phrase ‘Jesus loves you’ in her email signature – despite the fact that the Virginia Real Estate Board received no complaints.”
The bills now await Governor Glenn Youngkin’s signature.
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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Glenn Davis” by Glenn Davis. Background Photo “Virginia Capitol” by Martin Kraft. CC BY-SA 3.0.