The House of Delegates has passed the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). HB 4012 cleared the House 72-26 with bi-partisan support. Fifteen Democrats joined with 57 Republicans to pass the bill on to the Senate.
Supporters say their goal is to protect religious freedom by codifying that the state “may not substantially burden a person’s right to exercise of religion” unless the state has a “compelling interest.” They say their goal is to establish a balancing test when considering facts of a particular case.
However, opponents argue that the bill is a subterfuge for discrimination against gays and lesbians. If this becomes law, they say, West Virginians can safely cite their religion as an excuse for bigotry.
This is not an easy issue.
West Virginia is a deeply religious state where many of our citizens are guided by the word of God. For them, there is no higher authority or greater truth than the bible.
Those beliefs are already protected by the First Amendment. It commands that the government shall not prohibit the “free exercise” of their faith… or anyone else’s for that matter. And it’s that very amendment which renders RFRA unnecessary.
Gene Policinski at the First Amendment Center says, “The supreme arbiter is the First Amendment, which is going to protect an individual’s personal convictions, whether we like them or not.”
The arguments over the extent to which religious freedom is protected can continue ad infinitum and are endlessly parsed–we inevitably come back to the Christian baker or photographer and the gay wedding. And it’s natural that deeply religious people will feel that their world is under siege.
It was once common to believe women didn’t have the capacity to vote or have careers. Blacks were thought to be incapable of caring for themselves. Homosexuals were locked up or believed to be mentally ill. Appalachians are still stereotyped as inbred hillbillies.
But society’s values and mores are constantly evolving. The country’s views about gays and lesbians have changed rapidly in the last generation, particularly as we have learned of family members, neighbors, co-workers, respected professionals and others who are gay.
The state’s prohibition against same-sex marriage crumbled sixteen months ago following a series of decisions by federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. At that time, Governor Tomblin said, “Our state is known for its kindness and hospitality to residents and visitors alike. I encourage all West Virginians—regardless of their personal beliefs—to uphold our statewide tradition of treating everyone with dignity and respect.”
That was good counsel at the time, and it remains an appropriate guiding principle going forward. Meanwhile, the most religious among us should take heart that their right to religious freedom is already established in the First Amendment.