CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The Senate Judiciary Committee moved the controversial RFRA bill to the full Senate floor Friday night.
The revised version of the bill sent from the House of Delegates includes a provision requiring a test in court of proof of substantial burden for those claiming a violation of religious freedom, and whether the state has compelling interest in ensuring the law is followed.
“I believe the House bill is a better bill; it’s a much better place to start,” said Sen. Robert Karnes (R-Upshur) prior to the vote. “It still leaves wide open substantial constitutional questions. Going back to substantial burden, I think that may run afoul of the establishment clause as it relates to the First Amendment.”
Several hours of discussion and debate led to many amendments being proposed, and most being struck down. One of those was a disclaimer proposed by Sen. Corey Palumbo (D-Kanawha) stating that the bill doesn’t promote discrimination. That was rejected on a party line vote, 9-7.
“When we rejected (my) amendment to make clear that this was not in any way, shape or form a vehicle to discriminate against people, or treat someone poorly, I think there is no way I can support this bill,” said Palumbo.
Sen. Ed Gaunch (R-Kanawha) was among those who thought the House bill was better, but still voted for the amended version.
“I’m unhappy that we had to deal with this. I thought we had a good bill with the House bill that came over and that we should have dealt with it. But I intend to vote ‘yea’.”
Palumbo also pointed out that a RFRA bill could shine a negative light on the Mountain State if it’s seen by some residents as a catalyst for discrimination.
“I think the publicity we get from this will be terrible, I think it’s going to hurt West Virginia, and I would urge its rejection,” he said.
The vote was 12-4, with all GOP Senators voting in favor of the bill, and three Democrats supporting it as well.
The bill previously passed the House of Delegates on Feb. 11 on a 72-26 vote.