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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Youngkin Signs Marriage Equality Measure, Takes Tougher Line Against Gun Control

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks to reporters outside the Capitol near the end of the 2024 General Assembly session. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — In the first signals of how he’ll act on legislation approved by Virginia’s Democratic General Assembly, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a largely symbolic bill protecting same-sex marriage but took a more adversarial stance to bills dealing with gun control, reproductive rights and marijuana.

Youngkin had until Friday night to take action on 84 bills the legislature sent to him on a shorter-than-usual timeline. He vetoed eight, recommended changes to 12 and signed the rest.

The General Assembly is scheduled to wrap up its work today and could take up the governor’s initial amendments and vetoes when the body convenes this afternoon to vote on the budget and other unfinished business. Any overrides of his vetoes are unlikely, because Democrats are well short of the two-thirds votes necessary to enact laws despite the governor’s opposition.

The legislation the governor signed included a high-profile bill to ban legacy admissions at Virginia’s colleges and universities, a fairness measure that has drawn broad support after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down race-based affirmative action policies last year.

In one of his more surprising moves, Youngkin signed a Democratic-sponsored bill meant to ensure that same-sex marriage remains legal in Virginia regardless of any future court decisions. Youngkin’s office largely emphasized the faith-based exemptions in the bill allowing clergy and religious organizations to decline to perform same-sex weddings.

“The bill adds First Amendment protections to the code of Virginia,” said Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez. “Religious organizations and members of the clergy acting in their religious capacity now have the authority to decline to officiate marriage ceremonies that violate their conscience. The remainder of the bill deals with the ministerial duties of issuing licenses, which is already guided by federal preemption.”

The law enacted by Youngkin states that in Virginia, marriage licenses must be issued to any two people seeking a “lawful marriage” regardless of gender, race or sex. That is already the practice in Virginia due to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, but the new law would take on greater weight if the high court reverses itself, since it is currently superseded by Virginia’s 2006 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Democrats are also working to repeal that legally moot ban within the next few years.

Equality Virginia, a LGBTQ rights advocacy group, applauded Youngkin’s decision Friday night.

“Two years into his term, Governor Youngkin has shown leadership and inclusivity, and has finally listened to his constituents with his signing of HB174,” said Narissa Rahaman, Equality Virginia’s executive director.

Youngkin didn’t look so favorably on two bills dealing with gun safety.

He vetoed legislation that would have tightened rules requiring people credibly accused or convicted of domestic abuse to give up any firearms. The proposal would have barred those gun owners from giving the weapons to someone else in the same household or anyone under 21. In his veto statement, Youngkin said he took issue with the “arbitrary age prohibition” and the potential for “disarming individuals not subject to a court order.”

“Make no mistake, Virginia should ensure that domestic abusers are dealt with appropriately, and those who resort to illegal firearm use, especially, should face severe and harsh punishments,” Youngkin said in his veto. “The legislation fails to achieve its intended purpose and is unnecessary.”

One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, said the governor’s veto was a setback for women.

“I am deeply disappointed that given the opportunity to better protect innocent lives, uphold our laws against domestic abusers, and lift up families, this governor has instead turned his back,” Favola said in a news release Saturday. “Women deserve better.”

The governor also recommended major changes to a bill that would have required school boards to notify parents about gun risks and safe storage laws. Youngkin’s recommended amendments would broaden the notification to include a wide variety of parental “rights” and “responsibilities,” including the ability to shield children from sexually explicit material in schools and the duty to keep kids safe from drugs. His amendments also require the bill to be reapproved in 2025 before it can go into effect.

The governor vetoed a bill meant to inhibit book banning by local school officials, saying its proposed anti-censorship language could “cause confusion among school administrators, divisions, parents, and students.” In 2022, the General Assembly passed a law requiring schools to notify parents of sexually explicit reading assignments. The law didn’t deal specifically with libraries, and Democrats have denounced local school boards that have used the notification rule as a pretext to scour library shelves and remove dozens of books at once.

Youngkin’s moves on gun bills are a preview of what could be many more vetoes to come on dozens of gun control measures Democrats sent to him this year, including legislation restricting access to assault-style weapons.

On reproductive rights, Youngkin proposed a religious exemption to a bill that would require health insurers to cover contraception. The governor’s office said the exemption would “ensure that non-governmental plan sponsors with sincerely held religious or moral beliefs are not required to provide insurance coverage for contraception in accordance with existing federal and state law.”

The House of Delegates Democratic Caucus blasted Youngkin’s action on the contraception bill, saying it “only serves the purpose of adding additional barriers to access for women across Virginia who are more than capable of deciding when and how they want to start a family.”

Youngkin also vetoed a bill that would have repealed a longstanding prohibition on for-profit surrogacy brokers who connect would-be parents with women willing to carry a pregnancy on their behalf. Proponents of the measure said the restriction has had no real-world effect and only creates a chilling effect around surrogacy by threatening criminal penalties. Youngkin said he was concerned that letting a stronger profit motive into the process could lead to “coercion and abuse of surrogates.”

“The free market is a powerful and significant force for raising individuals out of poverty, but we must recognize that not all areas are suitable for commodification,” Youngkin said in the veto. “Surrogacy involves a profound bond between a mother and her child, a relationship that transcends monetary transactions.”

On election policy, Youngkin vetoed a bill meant to force his administration to reenter the multi-state Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a previously uncontroversial voter roll maintenance program that has come under fire from conservative “election integrity” activists. Youngkin insisted the decision to withdraw Virginia from the program was based on legitimate concerns about its management and decisions to share voter data with outside groups.

“I have been explicitly clear about my affirmation of the legitimacy of our elections,” Youngkin said. “My focus is safeguarding Virginians’ private information and continuously improving an efficient, cost-effective voter registration system.”

In its statement released Saturday morning, the House Democratic Caucus said Youngkin’s initial actions show the “true colors of Virginia Republicans” and the “dangerous MAGA agenda” Democrats were elected to stop.

“The governor’s choice to veto and offer overzealous amendments to these critical pieces of legislation will do nothing more than ensure that guns are left in the hands of domestic abusers, restrict access to reproductive healthcare and threaten our democracy and our voting rights,” the caucus said.

Youngkin’s moves Friday night offered little hope for marijuana legalization proponents hoping the governor might get on board with a proposal to allow retail weed sales in the state. He instead vetoed a more minor bill that would have clarified in the law that marijuana use and possession isn’t necessarily evidence of child abuse or neglect. The governor suggested the bill went too far and minimized the dangers of keeping and using drugs around kids.

“The proposal undermines the tangible link between substance use and harm to children,” Youngkin said.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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