A bill allowing discrimination against the LGBTQ community, and potentially undermining city ordinances that protect residents from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, was apparently so important that the West Virginia Senate suspended its rules Wednesday to get it through. (It’s more likely the Senate didn’t want any public feedback on this “religious freedom” bill that originated in the House of Delegates, so they fast-tracked it.)
I’m not sure who was asking for this law, but the Legislature has taken swipes at city fairness ordinances before and has declined for years to update the state’s anti-discrimination law to include sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Legislature, controlled by a Republican supermajority in both chambers, has been passing or considering all manner of bills in recent years that essentially put a “Keep out!” sign on a state that’s been losing population for decades. It’s ironic that the political party supposedly favoring small government and local control wants to wipe laws off city books, dictate what teachers can and can’t teach, override local public health initiatives and force the continued use of coal at a capacity well over market demand. I guess they’re for local control as long as it lines up with what the West Virginia GOP thinks that should look like.
Control is a big issue in West Virginia. New people with new ideas, or even lifelong West Virginians who don’t conform to certain aspects of who other people think they should be, are shunned in many cases. State lawmakers and powerbrokers say they want an influx of youth, talent and economic diversity, but their actions tend to continually portray the opposite. That, in turn, contributes to the ongoing trend of population loss.
It also seems like everyone in the state eventually answers to the same handful of wealthy and powerful families that have controlled West Virginia for generations. It’s not like they’ve done a good job of it, either, but what do they care? They’ve gotten theirs, and they’re going to do everything they can to protect it, whether that means hanging onto antiquated energy production, pursuing legislation that cripples competition to their interests, attaining high political office or any number of other actions their status allows them to pursue.
Instead of nourishing fresh perspectives and welcoming new and different people, many of West Virginia’s institutions are clutched in a death grip by those who have money to make and age-old scores to settle. It’s not a healthy situation, and the fallout makes life harder for the state’s residents who are simply trying to get by despite low wages, poor infrastructure, understaffed public schools and barriers to accessing decent health care, among many other significant obstacles. (As an aside, a bill that allows a business owner or landlord to cite their religion in order to deny services to someone doesn’t address any of these problems.)
Cliquishness based on wealth, familiarity, control or surnames happens everywhere. However, West Virginia is such a small state that this type of insular gatekeeping has an outsized influence and is much easier to see. And that goes for the state throughout most of its history, not just in the past eight to 10 years.
Sure, there are exceptions. But when new people do come in, especially in the political realm, it’s typically because they’ve been recruited for a specific office or they couldn’t hack it someplace else. Instead of bringing new ideas, they conform to how West Virginia operates and, eventually, are part of the network. They’d be run off, otherwise.
West Virginia is having the life choked out of it. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how or when that will change.
Ben Fields is the opinion editor. He may be reached at ben.fields@hd