Business groups in West Virginia and some of the state’s largest corporations are organizing to head off any new “religious freedom” laws, which opponents say allow discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
But while the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and several companies that joined the new anti-discrimination group Opportunity West Virginia continue to oppose such legislation, campaign finance reports show some are incidentally helping to fund lawmakers who sponsored and voted for the 2016 “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” or RFRA.
The Chamber PAC, the group’s political spending arm, has given at least $28,000 to 38 lawmakers in the West Virginia House of Delegates who are running for re-election and voted for the controversial bill, which has come under fire after other states lost millions of dollars after passing similar legislation.
The Chamber’s spending includes a total of $3,000 to five of the delegates that sponsored the 2016 bill. That includes Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay; Terry Waxman, R-Harrison; Rupie Phillips, D-Logan; John O’Neal, R-Raleigh; and House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.
The corporate-funded PAC also gave $1,000 each to senators Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, and Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, both of whom voted against a last-minute amendment that would have ensured the law couldn’t be used to discriminate against people.
Blair also introduced a resolution last session that would have blocked local nondiscrimination ordinances in West Virginia, which have thus far given protections to LGBT communities in around eight cities in the state.
Steve Roberts, the Chamber’s president, said his organization is still “absolutely opposed” to any law that could be used as a “tool for discrimination,” but he said the Chamber’s decision to fund specific state lawmakers was based on more than their vote on RFRA.
The Chamber is not a single-issue advocacy organization, Roberts said. The pro-business group, which sent letters to senators advocating for them to vote against the law earlier this year, weighted its campaign financing decisions more on candidates’ willingness to cut regulations and limit lawsuits against corporations.
While he has not talked to lawmakers about the issue, Roberts believes there is now a “decided lack of interest” in the bill moving forward.
“I think there is good reason to think that, given the pretty resounding rejection in the Senate, that the issue is done,” Roberts said, adding that the economic implications in other states should serve as a warning.
When Indiana Governor and current Republican vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence signed that state’s “religious freedom” bill into law, Indianapolis, the state capital, lost around $60 million when 12 conventions cited the legislation and chose not to locate there.
In North Carolina, more than 120 CEOs and business leaders signed letters voicing their discontent with a similar law in North Carolina that was passed earlier this year. Since then, the NBA and the NCAA have said they were pulling an all-star game and seven collegiate championship events from the state.
Andrew Schneider, the executive director of Fairness West Virginia, thinks the Chamber’s way of thinking is shortsighted. He said it is “flirting with disaster” by helping the same lawmakers that supported RFRA get re-elected.
Schneider would like to see the state Chamber follow in the steps of its sister organizations in other parts of the country that have pushed for state laws that ensure people can’t be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation.
But at the very least, he said, they should be withholding campaign donations from lawmakers willing to support discriminatory and anti-business legislation.
“It’s not holding those public officials accountable for putting the state at risk of losing tourism revenue and sending out a horrible message to businesses that might locate here,” he said.
At least one other company that opposes such laws and has signed nondiscrimination pledges with Opportunity West Virginia has also given to lawmakers that voted for RFRA. A few others, while not directly financing supporters of the law, belong to state organizations that are spending on their behalf.
AT&T, which has a corporate non-discrimination policy and is a member of Opportunity WV, has given a total of $1,000 to Armstead and fellow delegates Gary Howell, R-Mineral, and Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha.
The telecommunications company has also donated $500 to Blair and $1,000 to Republican Gubernatorial candidate Bill Cole, who as senate president also voted against the amendment that would have prevented discrimination.
The company’s PAC also donates money based on other issues besides lawmakers’ votes on RFRA.
“AT&T continues to support freedom of speech and religion just as vigorously as we oppose discrimination. Legislation that would permit discrimination against any of our employees or customers conflicts with our core values,” said Dan Langan, a spokesman for AT&T. “Consistent with these values — and to avoid harming the state’s reputation and business climate — we urge lawmakers to reject measures that would create new avenues for discrimination in West Virginia.”
The Marriott Town Center and Embassy Suites in Charleston, while continuing to campaign against any type of discriminatory legislation, belongs to the West Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, which has contributed a total of $1,350 to lawmakers that supported RFRA.
The representatives for the two major hotel chains make up two of the eight seats on the WVHTA’s board of directors, but Mark Cherry, the general manager of Embassy Suites, said he had no idea where the travel association’s political action committee was spending money.
Carol Fulks, the executive director of the association, could not be reached for comment, but campaign finance records show the group’s PAC has donated to Nelson and Blair, along with delegates Ron Walters, R-Kanawha, John Shott, R-Mercer, and Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer.
As a company, Cherry said the Marriot has advocated against religious freedom bills and will continue to do so if the legislation is reintroduced in the state legislature.
“West Virginia is not the kind of state that needs people saying, ‘I don’t want to go there because I could be discriminated against,’” Cherry said. “If it comes up again and it rears its ugly head, we will do what we did last time. It is not pro-business. It is not pro-economic development. It is a black eye.”
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