CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (HB 4012) is up for passage in the House of Delegates Thursday after clearing amendment stage.
Supporters say the bill protects the free exercise of religion, but opponents argue the law will be used to discriminate against the gay community.
The text of the bill says the state “may not substantially burden a person’s right to exercise of religion” unless the state has a “compelling interest.” Bill sponsors say that gives an individual a legal avenue to fight back if they believe their religious freedom is being infringed.
House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles (R-Morgan) said during floor debate Wednesday that the bill is about protecting constitutional rights.
“First Amendment rights of the citizens of West Virginia… are important and should not be subject to a local ordinance, a state law and a federal law. You should be able to defend yourself in court against unjust government punishment,” Cowles said.
But Delegate Barbara Fleishauer (D-Monongalia) countered that there is no need for additional protections for religious liberty.
“The Constitution applies whether we pass this bill or not, and already under the Constitution there are ways that you can enforce your Constitutional rights,” she said.
Opponents add that the bill will be bad for the state’s economy because it sends the message that West Virginia is does not welcome the LGBT community.
The House is expected to pass the bill and then it’s on to the Senate.
House Speaker Tim Armstead (R-Kanawha) made a rare move during the floor session. He gave a floor speech explaining a decision he made when he ruled a proposed amendment from Del. Stephen Skinner (D-Jefferson) was not germane to the bill. Skinner appealed the Speaker’s decision, which observers said hadn’t been done in 30 years in the House.
Armstead also bristled at any suggestion that he has cut off debate.
“We are not cutting off debate on anything. What we are doing is trying to enforce the rules of this House to ensure that this process, which we all respect and admire, does not become chaos. That’s what I’m trying to do in terms of these rulings. I do somewhat resent that somehow we’re not allowing people to debate,” Armstead said.
Armstead reminded members of last week’s debate on the right to work bill that stretched for more than five hours.