A religious freedom bill signed into law this week by Gov. Jim Justice is causing concern among some lawmakers and activist groups, who say the law is a “license to discriminate.”
Supporters say House Bill 3042 is meant to prevent the government from interfering in the free exercise of religion, unless there is a compelling interest. Under the law, a person or incorporated entity who believes their religious freedoms have been infringed upon can use that violation in defense of a claim, or to file a claim, even against the state or one of its political subdivisions.
Those who supported the legislation also say it provides a judicial test for religious freedom cases and directs the courts to apply strict scrutiny, a form of judicial review courts use to determine the constitutionality of laws.
Justice signed the bill on Thursday.
Opponents believe the new law threatens local non-discrimination ordinances that protect the LGBTQIA+ and other vulnerable minority communities. Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, is concerned the legislation will be used to strike down these important local laws. Before the bill cleared the House, Pushkin offered an amendment to protect non-discrimination ordinances but it was rejected by the Republican majority.
“We’re very disappointed that the governor would sign a bill that’s only purpose is to give legal cover to those who would discriminate against fellow West Virginians,” Pushkin said Friday. “I truly believe most West Virginians don’t want to see people fired, kicked out of their homes, or denied service simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. West Virginians are far better than that and deserve more from their leaders.”
Under the new law, individual religious beliefs could be used to call into question any local or state law, according to a statement issued by Fairness West Virginia, a civil rights advocacy organization dedicated to fair treatment and civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender West Virginians. Anyone could be exempt from following a law or government policy if they believe it burdened their religious beliefs, according to the statement.
“This isn’t about protecting religious freedom,” Fairness West Virginia Executive Director Andrew Schneider said. “The freedom of religion is a fundamental right to our country and it’s enshrined in both the U.S. and West Virginia constitution. This law is nothing more than a license to discriminate.”
Several Republican legislators have attempted to argue the bill won’t be used as a tool to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
“It’s not secret that major corporations — including more than 90% of Fortune 500 companies — believe that discrimination is bad for business,” Schneider said. “Businesses want to attract diverse talent, and this law won’t make that any easier. Young professionals want to live in vibrant, welcoming communities, and guess what they’ll say when they see our lawmakers spending more time promoting discrimination than tackling the real issues facing our state.”
Religious freedom laws have the unintended consequence of undermining core civil rights protections and jeopardizing the health and safety of vulnerable people, Fairness West Virginia said in its statement.
The group said similar laws have had negative effects in other states, such as Oklahoma, where an officer cited a religious freedom law in defense of his refusal to attend a community event hosted by a local Islamic Society. Other police officers have claimed “religious liberty” in their refusal to police an LGBTQ pride parade, according to the group’s statement.
“Religious exemption laws muddy the legal landscape and have already led to many costly lawsuits across the country, as local municipalities have been embroiled in lengthy litigation,” Fairness West Virginia said in its statement.
According to the group, in Arizona, it took one small town four years to settle a dispute where the plaintiff used a similar law as a basis for refusing to comply with an ordinance regulating sign postings. The National League of Cities and the National Associations of Counties have both cautioned against such laws, according to Fairness West Virginia’s statement.
Roger Adkins covers politics. He can be reached at 304-348-4814 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @RadkinsWV on Twitter.