‘It’s a statement that we have your backs:’ Legislation to prevent disclosing religious affiliation heads back to the General Assembly

By: - August 23, 2018 6:01 am

The floor, emblazoned with the state seal, of the Virginia Capitol in Richmond, CCO via Wikimedia Commons.

A bill that would protect Virginians’ religious affiliations from being reported to the federal government will head back to the General Assembly next year.

Del. Kathy Tran, D-Springfield, said she created the bill in response to fears about a nationwide Muslim registry. As drafted, it would specifically prohibit colleges and correctional facilities from turning over that information to federal agencies if they were trying to create a list or database of names.

“It’s a statement … that essentially we have your backs,” Tran said.

The state’s Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council, which settles FOIA disputes and reviews legislation pertaining to the law, worked through the technicalities of the legislation this week. Tran introduced the bill in the last General Assembly session, where it was referred from the General Laws committee to the FOIA Council to consider over the summer.

If the General Assembly doesn’t kill or pass legislation, it can be referred to committees that spend the rest of the year working on revisions to get them ready for the next session.

Although Tran didn’t explicitly mention President Donald Trump, he has been asked about creating a Muslim registry and has dodged giving a clear answer on whether he wants to or not.

Hurunnessa Fariad, an outreach coordinator at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center in Sterling, said recent rhetoric surrounding Muslims and immigrants makes her nervous. She’s Muslim and came to the United States as a refugee when she was 5.

She’s never been singled out for her religion,  but her 12- and-14-year-old daughters were once harassed for wearing hijabs at Reston Town Center, she said.

“The Muslim community does feel a bit threatened,” Fariad said. “And worried about a registry being created.”

Tran’s bill has widespread support from Muslim and Jewish organizations, she said, as well as the Richmond-based, socially-conservative Family Foundation.

Most of the FOIA Advisory Council supported the bill too, taking aim at the power the federal government can exercise over the state.

“I don’t care who the president is, I don’t think we should be giving our information to the federal government,” said FOIA Council chairman Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Montross, at the meeting.

But Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, was concerned the bill was giving residents too much assurance the state can protect them.

“If a federal agency wants it and knows Virginia law, they say they want it for reasons other than these,” he said. “That doesn’t solve the problem. I’m concerned about giving people a false sense of privacy.”

Fariad understands the shortcomings of the bill Davis pointed out, but it’s important for the state to do what it can for its residents, she said.

“The main objective is to make sure citizens of Virginia are confident in elected officials,” she said.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.