More than 200 people came to the state Capitol Thursday for a lobby day focused on civil liberties issues.
A large group turned out for a similar event last year, but organizations that work on civil rights issues in the state have experienced a dramatic surge in interest since the 2016 election.
More than 35 organizations participated, including the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia; WV Free, a reproductive rights organization; and Fairness West Virginia, an LGBT rights organization.
During a morning press conference in the Capitol’s lower rotunda, speakers included Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson; House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison; Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell; Jeanette King, president and CEO of Strategic Resolution Experts; Mark Cherry, Embassy Suites of Charleston general manager; and the Rev. Donte Jackson, pastor of First Baptist Church of Huntington.
Attendees cheered and waved signs that said “#LoveThyNeighbor (no exceptions)” and “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Attendees planned to lobby lawmakers after the speeches. Carmichael told them they had “an open door.”
“We will not tolerate lessening the contributions of people that are different from us in any way,” he said. “We are one society. We are one people and we pull together in the same direction to make this a better state for all of our citizens.”
At last year’s event, the focus was mainly on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill that some supporters openly said was a reaction to same-sex marriage and that failed one year ago Thursday.
This year, the organizers weren’t uniting in opposition to one specific bill, but they were keeping their eyes on numerous bills addressing civil rights issues.
Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of WV Free, said reproductive health advocates are watching about a dozen bills focusing on reducing access to abortion, especially HB2002, which would take away physicians’ ability to waive parental notification.
“That’s important because not all young women live in ideal family situations,” she said. “We all want our daughters to be raised in homes where there’s healthy communication. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world and so we need laws that protect our most vulnerable. We need laws that protect our daughters and so we are asking the Legislature not to move forward on this dangerous bill.”
The ACLU’s legislative agenda includes support of creating a pilot program for school-based mental and behavioral health services, and opposition to “ramping up the war on drugs,” among other items, according to Joseph Cohen, executive director.
“We would not lock people up if they have the illness of cancer,” he said. “Why would we lock people up if they have the illness of addiction?”
He said “the priority of the Legislature should be on the budget.”
“There’s a budget crisis in this state and we don’t think it’s appropriate for the Legislature to be infringing upon people’s rights or looking at what’s going on in their bedrooms,” he said.
Some of the other organizations participating included West Virginia Citizen Action Group, West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, Family Refuge Center, Catholic Committee of Appalachia, and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.