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“Religious freedom” bill sent to Senate floor

After voting down an amendment that would have prevented the law from being used to discriminate, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday night approved and sent to the Senate floor a contentious bill that proponents say would protect religious freedom.

House Bill 4012 establishes a legal process for courts to follow when a person or business feels state action is violating their religious beliefs. The law would establish a balancing test for courts to use when determining whether the person is being substantially burdened by state action, and whether the state has “compelling governmental interest” in ensuring the law is followed.

“State action” could include civil rights laws, including local LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance, so civil rights advocates fear the law will be used to allow discrimination against the LGBT community and other historically-discriminated against groups. Proponents of the bill have openly said support stems from opposition same-sex marriage.

After hours of debate, the committee passed the bill with a vote of 12-4.

Senator Corey Palumbo, D- Kanawha, introduced an amendment that would have clarified the law could not be used to discriminate. He wanted to add a section that specified the law could not be used to deny another person services or rights granted to them by existing law. The amendment was voted down 9-7.

“It shows that the point of the bill is to discriminate,” said Delegate Stephen Skinner, a Democrat representing Jefferson County and the state's first openly gay lawmaker.

Jennifer Meinig, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, said staff members at the organization were saddened that the committee “decided to reject fairness for all West Virginians.”

“If the purpose of the bill is to purportedly protect religious freedom, we should all remember the Golden Rule,” she said. “We support love. We support kindness. You can't codify humanity, but we will keep trying.”

The committee substitute that group debated included amendments that would have clarified that only an “individual” could argue their religious beliefs were being violated by state action, not a “person.” Senator Robert Karnes, R- Upshur, and Kellie Fiedorek from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that the Southern Poverty Law Center has referred to as “virulently anti-gay,” expressed concerns that the “person” language allows businesses to use the law, but the word “individual” would not. Karnes offered an amendment to change the language back to “person,” which was approved by the majority of the committee.

Opponents of the bill have argued that it is anti-business, because it sends an unwelcoming message and because most Fortune 500 companies have LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policies.

Most major employers in the state have refused to say where they stand on the legislation, but numerous small businesses have started a campaign to show they oppose the bill. Many are placing “All Kinds are Welcome Here” stickers on their windows to show they are welcoming to LGBT customers.

Mayors of several cities with LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances oppose the bill. The West Virginia Association of Counties director also spoke out against it, calling it a “lawsuit bill,” and lobbyists for the West Virginia Municipal League said they opposed it during a meeting Senator Charles Trump, Senate Judiciary Chair, held last week with parties interested in the bill. They also cited potential lawsuits.

The West Virginia House of Delegates has alreadypassed the bill , with a vote of 72-26 on Feb. 11. It now goes to the floor of the Senate.

Reach Erin Beck at erin.beck@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5163, Facebook.com/erinbeckwv, or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

Gazette-Mail legislative timeline

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