CHARLESTON, W.Va.– The House of Delegates has passed and sent to the Senate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, designed to add protections for people with deeply held religious beliefs. Opponents charge HB 4012 is a vehicle to discriminate against gays.
The bill passed with bi-partisan support 72-26. Fifteen Democrats joined the Republican majority voting for the bill, while seven Republicans voted with the Democratic minority opposition. Two members were not present.
The bill says that the state “may not substantially burden a person’s right to exercise of religion” unless the state has a “compelling interest.” The bill follows action by at least seven West Virginia communities to pass ordinances preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman John Shott (R-Mercer) argued on the floor that the measure is simply about protecting religious liberty.
“There are those among us who are intolerant of those of us who hold those beliefs and cherish that connection we have to God and our religion,” Shott said. “And it’s those people that need to understand that we have rights too…and first among them is the right to exercise our religion.”
However, Delegate Stephen Skinner (D-Jefferson) charged the bill is hostile toward the gay community and invites discrimination. “What we publicly heard about this bill, is the reason for this bill is because of gay people.”
Delegate Shawn Fluharty (D-Ohio) said passing the bill would invite ridicule and discourage companies with anti-discrimination policies from coming here.
“We can forget about being open for business. We’re open for bigotry after today,” he said.
Delegate Mike Azinger (R-Wood) took to the floor to try to put the bill in historical perspective, citing the importance of religion and faith in the national fabric.
“We’re voting today on the defense of our religious conscience, our God-given conscience, our Biblical conscience,” Azinger said. “If we have a Biblical belief, do we have a right in America to defend that?”
The bill now goes to the Senate where the outcome is less certain.