Guest Commentary – May 18, 2020

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General Assembly session yields sweeping changes

— Jeff Caruso, Executive Director, Virginia Catholic Conference

The 2019 elections swung the Senate and House from majority Republican to majority Democrat. With the switch in power came a seismic shift in leadership priorities and a rush by the new majority to enact sweeping changes that Gov. Ralph Northam was eager to sign. In just two months, nearly 1,300 bills passed, some drastically altering or even erasing decades of state policy.

For the Virginia Catholic Conference, this session was far different than any other in its 15-year history. The sheer number and striking severity of threats, especially to life and religious liberty, created a triage-like environment for VCC advocacy this year.

What passed

• Abortion expansion legislation that dismantles decades of pro-life protections. It eliminates health and safety regulations for abortion facilities, allows non-doctors to perform first-trimester abortions and removes nearly all requirements of informed consent before an abortion. Northam announced his signature in a press release issued on Good Friday.

• Reversal of the Hyde Amendment restrictions against abortion funding that VCC advocacy had helped secure one year ago.

• Ratification of the ERA, even though its language has already been used to challenge and overturn pro-life laws in other states.

• Legislation adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as protected categories in many areas of state law. VCC efforts to amend the legislation to ensure religious liberty protections for religious employers, churches, schools and other ministries to practice their beliefs — including the beliefs that God created each person male or female and established marriage as the union of a man and a woman— were thwarted at every turn.

VCC involvement was, however, instrumental in ensuring these new provisions do not change existing law on state contracts and thus do not impact partnerships between Catholic Charities and the Commonwealth to provide refugee resettlement and other services.

• Legislation requiring health benefit plans to cover gender transition treatments and surgery. VCC efforts to add an exemption for religious employers whose beliefs do not permit this coverage were defeated.

• Legislation requiring background checks for firearm purchases.

• Legislation ensuring that crime victims and witnesses are not asked their immigration status when they report crimes.

• Legislation protecting borrowers from predatory lending practices.

What did not pass

• Bills to legalize assisted suicide, to repeal the law that protects the religious liberty of faith-based adoption and foster-care agencies, and to repeal the Education Improvements Scholarships Tax Credits program.

Proactive advocacy by the VCC and partnering organizations was key in keeping each of these three bills from receiving committee votes this year. In each case, however, the legislation is likely to resurface, requiring vigilance and intensified efforts by the VCC and its advocacy partners.

• Legislation to exempt from the death penalty those who had a severe mental illness at the time of the crime. The bill passed the Senate in a strong bipartisan vote but then stalled in a House subcommittee. Bills to abolish the death penalty also failed to advance, but there were positive indications that movement could occur next year.

• Legislation that would have required parental consent for a child to participate in a public school FLE program.

Editor’s note: View the full VCC vote report at (see “2020 General Assembly,” “Read the Vote Report”).

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