Although lawmakers introduced nine bills to establish legal protection for LGBTQ people in West Virginia in 2018, none became law or even made it to a committee for consideration.
Different pieces of legislation would have offered legal cover for LGBTQ people such as hate crime and equal employment opportunity protection. Many of them were backed by bipartisan groups of lawmakers.
One bill had 14 Senators of the 34 in the chamber from both parties signed on as sponsors. No committee ever took it up or voted on it.
Another example: Under existing law, West Virginia’s Human Rights Act establishes statutory protection related to employment, public accommodations and real estate regardless of race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, blindness or other disability — but not sexual orientation.
Delegate Charlotte Lane, R-Kanawha, introduced House Bill 2670 on the first day of the session, which would expand the act to include people of any sexuality or gender identity. Seven House Democrats joined Lane as sponsors on the bill.
House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, referred it to the Industry & Labor Committee for review.
The Industry & Labor Committee met just twice during the session. Its chairman, Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, said in an interview that the committee had limited time to meet and could not accomplish everything it wanted.
He declined to directly answer whether he believed an employer should have the legal right to fire people based on their sexual orientation. He did, however, outline his general approach to the issue.
“It is a significant question, as to whether a particular sexual preference should obtain special preference under the law, because what these bills are intended to do is to make a class of people and put them within a protected class, such as race,” he said. “So, that becomes a significant question, as to whether that status for a chosen preference is or should be a protected status.”
In 2016, Fast argued against a nondiscrimination amendment to legislation that enabled Uber to operate in West Virginia.
“Once homosexual, bisexual and transgender behavior is elevated to a protected status, there is nothing to stop bigamy, pedophilia or any other sexual practice from receiving the same protection,” he said, according to The Huffington Post. The amendment was voted down.
That wasn’t the only anti-discrimination bill to die in Fast’s committee.
House Bill 4319 would have made similar changes to the same code section. Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, sponsored the bill, joined by three Republicans and six Democrats. He introduced the bill Jan. 26. Industry & Labor’s agenda shows it did not consider the bill during its second, and final, legislative meeting, on Jan. 30.
Several other bipartisan LGBTQ protection bills didn’t go the distance.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced bills to ban the practice of “conversion therapy,” or any sort of treatment seeking to change one’s sexual identity. The practice has been condemned by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical groups.
The Senate’s version of the bill was sponsored by, among 11 others, the three medical doctors in the chamber — Sens. Michael Maroney, R-Marshall, Ron Stollings, D-Boone, and Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha — the last of whom is the chairman of the Health and Human Resources Committee.
Regardless, no legislative committee in either chamber took up the bill. In the Senate’s version, two Senators wound up removing themselves as sponsors.
Another example: Delegate Josh Higginbotham, R-Putnam, introduced the “Justice Through Grace in Communities Act,” which extended state civil rights and hate-crime protection to anyone targeted on the basis of their actual or perceived gender or sexual orientation.
Nine bipartisan lawmakers signed onto the bill, which was referenced to both the Judiciary and Finance committees, neither of which considered the bill. Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, who is running for Congress, introduced the same bill in the Senate on Feb. 2. It was not reviewed by any committee.
Another Senate Democrat, Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, introduced two additional measures, Senate bills 99 and 471, both identical to House legislation. Neither made it to a committee review.
Sen. Sue Cline, R-Raleigh, removed herself as a sponsor from two LGBTQ-protection bills as the session wore on. She could not be reached for comment.
In interviews, Andrew Schneider, executive director and lobbyist for Fairness West Virginia, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, and legislators said, in general, the bills died because of Armstead.
Schneider said the votes were there in both chambers to pass the bills, but Armstead wouldn’t have it. He said Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, was a supporter, but knew the bills were a no-go with Armstead.
“We are singularly blocked by the speaker, which sort of defies the democratic process,” Schneider said.
Lane said she believes no citizens should be discriminated against because of who they marry or date and that she thinks most of the Legislature believes this, as well. She said the bills contradicted Armstead’s agenda, so he didn’t let them run.
“The leadership in the House basically did not want those bills on the committee agendas, and so they were never on the agenda,” she said. “I feel very strongly that we should be passing legislation that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, and I think that the House would pass legislation if we ever got to vote for it.”
Carmichael said there’s a reality that the legislative session is only 60 days, and the Senate focused its energy on legislation that can create jobs, not to mention a teacher strike that took up most everyone’s attention.
“What I will say is that we sort of made a pledge to avoid as many social issues as we possibly could during the legislative session when we’re trying to get the economy moving in the right direction,” he said.
However, he emphasized that he believes in equal rights and legal protection for all people, and that no one should be discriminated against for who they marry. In 2016, Carmichael gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor in favor of an amendment that essentially torpedoed a bill that critics argued was discriminatory against the LGBTQ community. The amendment passed, and the bill failed.
Carmichael said he “took a lot of bullets” for that. In a statement released after the bill went down, Armstead expressed his disappointment in the Senate’s actions.
Along with others, Carmichael hinted that political realities in the House, largely due to its speaker, complicated the effort, as well.
“We try to work out what can be accomplished as much as making a political statement,” he said. “There’s a recognition that those bills would not probably be well received in the House.”
Pushkin offered a similar take.
“There was a concerted effort on the part of leadership in the House of Delegates, namely Speaker Armstead and the chief of staff, Dan Greear, to block any legislation that would extend any rights to the LGBT community,” he said.
Both Pushkin and Schneider noted Greear’s ties to the Family Policy Council, an organization that opposes rights to same-sex marriage.
Armstead, through House spokesman Jared Hunt, declined an interview request. Hunt did note that no member filed a formal request for action on any of the House bills, which is a semi-regular occurrence. He said about two-dozen such requests were received this year.