A small business owner, a reverend, lawmakers, a West Virginia University official and civil rights advocates on Tuesday spoke against a bill that purports to restore religious freedom in West Virginia.
Fairness West Virginia, the state’s LGBT rights advocacy organization, held a press conference in the lower rotunda of the state Capitol Tuesday morning.
Jeanette King, president and CEO of Strategic Resolution Experts, winner of the Small Business Administration’s West Virginia “2015 Small Business Person of the Year,” and a U.S. Navy veteran, spoke against the bill.
“There are men and women in the armed services from West Virginia who are part of the LGBT community who are still fighting for your freedom and your rights,” she said, “and this legislation is sending a message to them that says they are not worth fighting for, yet they can still fight and die for you and the people of our nation.”
House Bill 4012 establishes a legal process for determining whether a person’s religious beliefs are being violated. Because those who think their beliefs are being violated could argue in court that local nondiscrimination ordinances, among other civil rights laws, violate their religious beliefs, civil rights advocates fear that the law could be used to discriminate against the LGBT population, among other historically discriminated against groups.
King noted that Procter & Gamble, which is building a $500 million plant near Martinsburg, has a robust nondiscrimination policy that includes protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as does her own business.
“They might reconsider their decision to come here to West Virginia because the RFRA act goes against everything they believe as a corporation,” she said.
The Rev. Cindy Briggs-Biondi of Dunbar United Methodist Church said that while she believes the bill would hurt the economy as well, she wanted to speak against the bill from a Christian perspective.
“This bill is nothing in the eyes of God because it lacks love and it legislates hate,” she said.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D- Marshall, noted that it’s already legal to discriminate against LGBT West Virginians, because the state’s Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination in public accommodations and employment, does not include protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“We’ve been upstairs fighting in both chambers over right to work,” he said. “Guess who doesn’t have the right to work? People of the LGBT community.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, did not speak against the bill, but spoke of human dignity and fairness and urged compromise.
“There’s nobody on either side of this issue that wants to promote discrimination in any form whatsoever,” he said. “… Let’s always think that others have pure good motives.”
Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, said there is no need for deep analysis of the bill to show it’s meant to promote discrimination, noting that Delegate Rupie Phillips, D-Logan, said last week the bill is about same-sex marriage.
He said “RFRA is threatening to put a tool in the toolbox of discriminators across the state.”
Kelly Kimball, chair of the Morgantown Area Chamber of Commerce and board chair for Fairness West Virginia, quoted Gandhi.
“First they isolate you,” she said. “Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
David Fryson, vice president of the WVU Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said, as he did in an op-ed in the Gazette-Mail, that push-back against the LGBT rights movement signifies that progress has been made.
“I challenge the notion that we need to restore our freedom of religion because I truly believe it has never been lost,” he said.
Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, urged opponents to lobby against the bill Tuesday. A lobbying training session was also held before the press conference.
“Go to your legislators,” he said. “Tell them one of the most important things they can do this session is vote against this bill and make sure it doesn’t see the light of day.”
Also this week, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia West Virginia chapter, a Catholic social justice organization, released a statement in opposition to the bill.
“We take issue with this bill, and the Diocese of Wheeling Charleston’s support of it, because the use of our privilege to secure our own interests would endanger the civil rights of those most excluded in our midst,” it reads. “Roman Catholicism has historically fallen short in practicing equality and the protection of the dignity of the human person especially when that person has happened to be female or has had a sexual orientation other than that of the majority. When our Church has failed in these ways, it has often done so on the grounds of our religious beliefs.”
The bill advanced from first reading on Monday to the debate stage. The bill is scheduled for second reading today and will be up for a vote in the House tomorrow.