After about two hours of impassioned debate Thursday, the West Virginia House of Delegates voted, 72-26, to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill that civil rights advocates fear will be used to discriminate against LGBT individuals and others.
Supporters, mainly Republicans, argued that the bill simply codifies a balancing test for courts to abide by when determining if a person’s religious beliefs are being violated by state action and doesn’t guarantee any outcome of that test. Opponents, mainly Democrats, argued that the potential legislation will be bad for business, harm West Virginia’s reputation and encourage discrimination against marginalized groups.
The bill (HB 4012) establishes a legal process for courts to follow when determining if a person’s religious beliefs are being violated. Because businesses and individuals could argue that civil rights laws, including local nondiscrimination ordinances, violate their religious beliefs, civil rights advocates argue that the bill could be used to refuse services to LGBT people, women and others.
Several supporters accused those civil rights advocates of spinning the truth.
A visibly frustrated Delegate John Shott, R- Mercer, said he thinks the bill has been victim to “more misinformation” than any other bill considered in the Legislature.
“I think it’s important for you to understand the mere enunciation of a test does not guarantee what the outcome is going to be,” he said. “This is not a one-sided, automatic result.”
Delegate Ricky Moye, D- Raleigh, noted that a similar bill passed in West Virginia in 2012.
“The only thing that has changed is the propaganda surrounding this bill,” he said.
Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, pointed out another difference between 2012 and today — the legality of same-sex marriage. While some have said the bill is not an effort to target the LGBT population, Skinner noted that some bill sponsors have publicly said support stems from opposition to same-sex marriage.
Skinner, the state’s only openly gay legislator, cited a Gazette-Mail report about a Gilmer County deputy clerk who told two women that their relationship is wrong when they asked for a marriage license last week.
“She gave them the license,” Skinner said. “She ruined their day. That’s where we are right now, my friend. That’s the difference between 2012 and today.”
Skinner also noted that, as supporters have said as well, the First Amendment already protects freedom of religion, and courts in West Virginia have already used the balancing test described in the legislation.
“Click your heels three times,” he said. “We’re already home.”
Delegate Mike Azinger, R-Wood, spoke fervently and at length about his belief that the Founding Fathers supported a Christian government.
“The textbooks were Christian,” he said. “Common Core is an abomination. Common Core is so far from where we came from.”
Some Democratic lawmakers noted that religion has been used to discriminate in the past.
Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, brought up “the elephant in the room.” He said, “We’ve seen this before, and it had to do with the complexion of skin tones.”
Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, said he wants West Virginia to be on the right side of history.
“The same ideals and government philosophies that are driving this legislation are the same government philosophies that once said women should not have the right to vote,” he said.
Delegate Tim Manchin, D- Marion, during a meeting of the House Judiciary, took a swipe at the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national conservative organization that has been advocating for the bill. He questioned one of the organization’s attorneys, Kellie Fiedorek, about how many cases she takes defending RFRAs in other states, but she evaded many of his questions.
“That’s what this team of lawyers does,” he said. “They go all around the country, looking for these types of lawsuits. Guess who pays these lawsuits? The municipalities.”
Several Democratic lawmakers said they worry about West Virginia’s reputation.
“They believe we’re backward,” Manchin said, “that we’re hillbillies, that we’ve got two legs that are different lengths from each other. Ladies and gentleman, do we think we are improving our image?”
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration. Senate President Bill Cole said he was undecided on the bill Monday. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin told The Associated Press that he would consider vetoing it.
Fairness West Virgina, the state’s LGBT rights advocacy organization, sent a statement from Executive Director Andrew Schneider.
“We urge Senate President Bill Cole and other fair-minded, pro-business leaders in the Senate to kill this legislation or vote it down before it’s too late,” he said.
The Charleston Regional Chamber of Commerce also sent a statement, from Matt Ballard, president and CEO.
“Frankly, the fact that this bill has been given any serious consideration has already reflected poorly on us,” Ballard said.