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A student religious liberties bill is on the verge of passing the WV House. A free speech group says it creates confusion.

The “West Virginia Student Religious Liberties Act” is up for passage in the state’s House of Delegates Tuesday.

Eli Baumwell, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, says the legislation (House Bill 4069) will cause confusion.

Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral and the bill’s lead sponsor, said he filed it over the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation’s objection to prayer at a football game for Frankfort High, in Mineral County.

“Public school coaches must refrain not only from leading prayers themselves, but also from participating in students’ prayers,” the group wrote in a November letter to the Mineral schools superintendent.

But the bill Howell filed goes far beyond addressing the issue of praying coaches. It actually doesn’t seem to address that issue at all.

Howell said it does go beyond the incident. He says the bill essentially codifies federal court rulings, saving school systems work in looking up what’s required, but he didn’t provide those rulings when requested Monday.

For starters, the bill has a line claiming to protect public school students’ religious viewpoints when doing coursework.

“Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination and may not be penalized or rewarded on account of the religious content of their work,” the bill says.

Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, proposed on the House floor Monday an amendment to make it so that provision, as Pushkin put it, “couldn’t be used as an excuse to answer a test question wrong and get credit for it.”

But then Pushkin agreed with Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, to alter the amendment.

Butler then mentioned evolution; Delegate S. Marshall Wilson, I-Berkeley, objected to the amendment; Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, asked for the revised amendment to be read again; and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, successfully suggested deferring consideration of the amendment to Tuesday, when all delegates would have a chance to see it in writing.

But beyond whether the bill would allow students to get away with things like not answering test questions on evolution, the bill focuses on speech by students — not that of school volunteers or employees.

Baumwell said different people could read it in different ways, and that’s part of the danger.

“This bill can be read to grant greater permissions to religious viewpoints than nonreligious viewpoints, even though the bill says otherwise,” he said. He said it seems to be part of a larger effort “to try to bring religion into the schools in a concerning way.”

The legislation says public school systems “shall not discriminate against students or parents on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression.”

It doesn’t clarify what happens when a religious viewpoint, such as homosexuality being a sin, can itself be considered discriminatory against others. Howell said he didn’t think the bill would allow such speech.

It says things like “vulgar” and “indecent” speech are banned, but doesn’t define indecent or vulgar, and has lines like “the subject must be designated for each student speaker, the student must stay on the subject.”

Baumwell provided a letter that the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote regarding the bill.

“Public school students already have the right to pray and engage in other voluntary, student-led religious activities,” the letter said. “This is guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

“At the same time, schools may maintain control of both student and teacher expression in curricular activities and are constitutionally required to prohibit certain types of religious expression. Under the guise of protecting public school students’ religious expression, however, the bill is designed to encourage students to engage in coercive prayer and proselytization in public schools.”

The letter goes on to say that “there is a constitutionally significant difference between one student making a persuasive speech to the class about whether George Washington was the best President and another student arguing that a Jewish student is going to hell unless he accept[s] Jesus Christ. Yet this bill would require teachers to treat both situations the same.”

The bill requires county boards of education to adopt policies that are “substantially similar” to a draft policy included in the bill.

Heather Hutchens, the state Department of Education’s general counsel, told House Education Committee members last week that “I’m not sure how much substantially similar means.”

The draft policy would include:

  • guaranteeing football team captains and student council officers freedom of speech rights regarding religion that other students may not be given;
  • requiring a random selection process for student speakers and chronological matching of those selected to speaking engagements;
  • limitations on the content of graduation speeches.

Three taken to hospital after boulder strikes car, WVU PRT

MORGANTOWN Three people were taken to a hospital Monday after a rockslide struck a car and a transit shuttle vehicle at West Virginia University.

The university said the slide occurred along U.S. Route 19 in Morgantown after rains fell in the area. One boulder destroyed the front end of a small car. Another hit a Personal Rapid Transit system vehicle used to shuttle students between the university’s campuses.

Two people from the shuttle vehicle and one from the car on the road were taken to a hospital for evaluation, the university said in a statement. The nature of the injuries wasn’t immediately known.

WVU said the shuttle system will be closed indefinitely, and buses will be used in its place. All lanes of U.S. 19 were closed while the boulders were being removed.

Latest attempt to end greyhound purse subsidies goes to full Senate

A new effort to eliminate the $17 million a year subsidy for greyhound racing purses at tracks in Wheeling and Nitro advanced to the full Senate Monday after passing the Senate Finance Committee on a 10-6 vote, over strong opposition from Northern Panhandle senators.

The subsidy, which comes primarily from a 1½ percent tax on video lottery revenues from the racetracks’ casinos, has been a frequent target of past Legislatures, as attendance and wagering on greyhounds has faded from its mid-1980s heyday.

On Monday, Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said that money could be better used going into state coffers rather than being used to “float a business that is not profitable.”

However, Sens. William Ihlenfield, D-Ohio, and Michael Maroney, R-Marshall, argued that the bill could potentially devastate Wheeling Island Racetrack and Casino, possibly leading to the casino’s relocation elsewhere.

“I’m actually embarrassed to be part of the majority party when stuff like this comes up,” Maroney said, contending the bill is driven by grudges against breeders and general opposition to gambling on the part of some legislators.

“If there’s a dog track in the Eastern Panhandle, we wouldn’t be talking about this, I promise you that,” he added.

Finance Chairman Craig Blair is from Berkeley County.

Earlier, Maroney unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to wipe out the same funding mechanism that supports racing purses at the state’s two thoroughbred racetracks.

Proponents of the bill contended that greyhound racing is a dying sport, with Florida becoming the largest state to begin closing its greyhound tracks.

Once Florida closes its 11 greyhound tracks this year, there will only be six operating tracks in the U.S., two of which will be in West Virginia, said Richie Heath, lobbyist for the national anti-greyhound racing organization Grey2K USA and former counsel to the Senate president.

“This would free up $17.4 million additional revenue for the Legislature to appropriate as it sees fit,” Heath said of the bill, citing fiscal data from the state Racing Commission.

However, Ihlenfeld suggested that instead of portraying West Virginia as one of the last outposts for a dying sport, the state could effectively have a monopoly on an industry that still has some popularity, as measured by increased revenue at the two tracks for simulcasting races to casinos and off-track betting parlors nationally.

“We’re very close to cornering the market, very close to being the only game in town,” he said.

Wheeling city manager Robert Herron said Wheeling Island Casino and Racetrack is a major employer in the city, and the potential that its operations might be scaled back or moved would be devastating for a city already hard-hit by the closure of Ohio Valley Medical Center.

Last year, the operators of the casino backed legislation to allow each casino to operate a second satellite location, but the bill died in Senate Finance. Nothing in the current bill would authorize the casinos to move to new locations.

Several opponents of the measure were critical of Grey2K USA for airing what they called a misleading and deceptive marketing campaign emphasizing greyhound deaths and injuries.

Steve Sarras, a Wheeling-based greyhound breeder who races dogs at both West Virginia tracks, said breeders have a vested interest to assure that the dogs are well treated.

“If my dogs don’t finish first, second, third or fourth, I don’t get paid,” he said.

“The state is being hoodwinked, as other states have been,” Sarras said of the Grey2K campaign.

Sarras moved to West Virginia after a Grey2K campaign ended greyhound racing in his home state of Massachusetts.

In 2017, a nearly identical bill passed the Senate 19-15 and the House of Delegates 56-44 — again over strong opposition from Northern Panhandle legislators — but was vetoed by Gov. Jim Justice, who called the measure a “job killer.”

Proponents of the bill are hoping that current state budget shortfalls may make Justice more amenable to supporting the revenue measure.

For the third time, WV House to consider Intermediate appeals court after Senate approval

For the third year in a row, West Virginia senators have agreed to create an intermediate appeals court in the state and sent the bill to the House of Delegates, where it has died the past two years.

Senators on Monday approved the bill (SB 275) on an 18-14 vote. Sens. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, and Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, joined every Democrat present in voting against the bill. Sens. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, and Douglas Facemire, D-Braxton, were absent.

The past two years, the intermediate court bill approved by the Senate hasn’t even made it out of the House Judiciary Committee, let alone stood for a vote before the full House.

“The time has come,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said Monday. “The time has passed. It’s past time for this Legislature to exercise the authority conferred upon it in Article 8 of the [West Virginia] Constitution to create an intermediate court of appeals. This state needs one, and we’ve needed one for a long time.”

Trump said three separate committees since 1974 have evaluated the state’s judicial system and determined a need for an intermediate appeals court, between the county circuit courts and the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Supporters of the bill said it would alleviate an overly burdened Supreme Court and allow justices to rule on bigger issues of law. They also said it would enhance the legal review process for West Virginians.

“It allows the Surpeme Court to focus on cases … constitutional issues they haven’t taken on before and really take a look at the big picture,” said Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke.

Opponents said the court isn’t necessary and would be a waste of money, and that the Supreme Court’s caseload had decreased in recent years. They also said the push for the intermediate court was driven by outside interests and that the money could be better spent on things like drug courts, infrastructure and the state’s foster care system.

Senator Mike Romano, D-Harrison, called the vote on Monday déjà vu.

“Same demand for a court that’s unnecessary and unneeded,” Romano said. “We’re hearing we need one, but nobody’s been able to explain why we need one, and that’s pretty key. Sure — the age-old promise that if we create this court, businesses will come right over that mountain to establish right in West Virginia.

“It’s a bunch of bull, and we know it.”

The court would cost the state $7.6 million during fiscal year that begins on July 1, according to the fiscal notes provided to the Senate. The fiscal notes were compiled by the state Supreme Court, the West Virginia Insurance Commission, and the state’s Public Consolidated Retirement Board.

The following year, the court is projected to cost $5.3 million, and it would take about $3.8 million annually to operate the court once it’s up and running.

Right now, the state Supreme Court issues opinions for every appeal made to the court from lower courts, including circuit courts and family courts. If the intermediate appeals court is voted into existence by legislators, the state Supreme Court would decide which appeals it would consider and which it would reject.

As the name of the court suggests, the intermediate appeals court would provide a level of appeals between the county-based circuit courts and the state’s highest court, the West Virginia Supreme Court.

The current version of the bill allows for two exceptions where someone could bypass the intermediate court and go straight to the state Supreme Court: if their appeal involves a question of “fundamental public importance” and if time is a factor in a given case and therefore requires immediate consideration by the court.

The intermediate court would only hear appeals in civil cases, conservatorship and guardianship cases, family court decisions, administrative agency decisions and the Workers’ Compensation Board of Review decisions.

The creation of the intermediate court would mean the elimination of the Workers Compensation Office of Judges.

That means Workers Compensation reviews would go through the Workers Compensation Board of Review, and any appeals of the board’s decisions would be heard by judges with the intermediate court.

The intermediate court would be a two-district court, a 27-county northern district, and a 28-county southern district.

Each district would have a panel of three judges, who would serve 10-year terms on the court. The judiciary committee on Monday amended the bill to provide those judges be elected during the regular nonpartisan judicial elections during the primary election in a given election year.

Initially, the governor would appoint three judges with staggered terms, and the first election for the intermediate court would take place during the May 2022 primary.

US says Chinese military stole masses of Americans' data

WASHINGTON — Four members of the Chinese military have been charged with breaking into the computer networks of the Equifax credit reporting agency and stealing the personal information of tens of millions of Americans, the Justice Department said Monday, blaming Beijing for one of the largest hacks in history to target consumer data.

The hackers in the 2017 breach stole the personal information of roughly 145 million Americans, collecting names, addresses, Social Security and driver’s license numbers and other data stored in the company’s databases. The intrusion damaged the company’s reputation and underscored China’s increasingly aggressive and sophisticated intelligence-gathering methods.

“The scale of the theft was staggering,” Attorney General William Barr said Monday in announcing the indictment. “This theft not only caused significant financial damage to Equifax, but invaded the privacy of many millions of Americans, and imposed substantial costs and burdens on them as they have had to take measures to protect against identity theft.”

The case is the latest U.S. accusation against Chinese hackers suspected of breaching networks of American corporations, including steel manufacturers, a hotel chain and a health insurer. It comes as the Trump administration has warned against what it sees as the growing political and economic influence of China, and efforts by Beijing to collect data for financial and intelligence purposes and to steal research and innovation.

The indictment arrives at a delicate time in relations between Washington and Beijing. Even as President Donald Trump points to a preliminary trade pact with China as evidence of his ability to work with the Communist government, other members of his administration have been warning against cybersecurity and surveillance risks posed by China, especially as the tech giant Huawei seeks to become part of new, high-speed 5G wireless networks across the globe.

Experts and U.S. officials say the Equifax theft is consistent with the Chinese government’s interest in accumulating as much information about Americans as possible.

The data can be used by China to target U.S. government officials and ordinary citizens, including possible spies, and to find weaknesses and vulnerabilities that can be exploited — such as for purposes of blackmail. The FBI has not seen that happen yet in this case, said Deputy Director David Bowdich, though he said it “doesn’t mean it will or will not happen in the future.”

“We have to be able to recognize that as a counterintelligence issue, not a cyber issue,” said Bill Evanina, the U.S. government’s top counterintelligence official.

The four accused hackers are suspected members of the People’s Liberation Army, an arm of the Chinese military that was blamed in 2014 for a series of intrusions into American corporations.

Prosecutors say they exploited a software vulnerability to gain access to Equifax’s computers, obtaining log-in credentials that they used to navigate databases and review records. They also took steps to cover their tracks, the indictment says, wiping log files on a daily basis and routing traffic through dozens of servers in nearly 20 countries.

Besides stealing personal information, the hackers also made off with some of the company’s sensitive trade secrets, including database designs, law enforcement officials said.

Equifax, headquartered in Atlanta, maintains a massive repository of consumer information that it sells to businesses looking to verify identities or assess creditworthiness. All told, the indictment says, the company holds information on hundreds of millions of people in America and abroad.

The accused hackers are based in China and none are in custody. But U.S. officials nonetheless hope criminal charges can be a deterrent to foreign hackers and a warning to other countries that American law enforcement has the capability to pinpoint individual culprits. Even so, while China and the U.S. committed in 2015 to halt acts of cyber espionage against each other, the Equifax intrusion and others like it make clear that Beijing has continued its operations.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not return an email seeking comment Monday.

The case resembles a 2014 indictment by the Obama administration Justice Department that accused five members of the PLA of hacking into American corporations to steal trade secrets. U.S. authorities also suspect China in the massive 2015 breach of the federal Office of Personnel Management and of intrusions into the Marriott hotel chain and health insurer Anthem.

Such hacks “seem to deliberately cast a wide net” so that Chinese intelligence analysts can get deep insight into the lives of many Americans, said Ben Buchanan, a Georgetown University scholar and author of the upcoming book “The Hacker and the State.”

“This could be especially useful for counterintelligence purposes, like tracking American spies posted to Beijing,” Buchanan said.

Barr, who at an event last week warned of Beijing’s aspirations of economic dominance, said Monday that the U.S. has for years “witnessed China’s voracious appetite for the personal data of Americans.”

“This kind of attack on American industry is of a piece with other Chinese illegal acquisitions of sensitive personal data,” Barr said.

The criminal charges, which include conspiracy to commit computer fraud and conspiracy to commit economic espionage, were filed in federal court in Atlanta, where the company is based.

Equifax last year reached a $700 million settlement over the data breach, with the bulk of the funds intended for consumers affected by it.

Equifax officials told the Government Accountability Office the company made many mistakes, including having an outdated list of computer systems administrators. The company didn’t notice the intruders targeting its databases for more than six weeks. Hackers exploited a known security vulnerability that Equifax hadn’t fixed.

While company stock has recovered, Equifax’s reputation has not fully. The company was dragged in front of Congress no less than four times to publicly explain what happened.

The company is about to start paying out claims on its $700 million settlement, of which more claimants have opted in to getting a cash settlement than accept credit counseling. So many claims have been made for the cash, that the lawyers suing Equifax and the Federal Trade Commission have warned claimants that the chances of getting the full cash value of the settlement was unlikely.