CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Senate has put the brakes on the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration bill (HB4012), making significant language changes that bill supporters say guts the measure.
The Senate, on a 23-11 vote Tuesday evening, approved an amendment by Sens. Corey Palumbo (D-Kanawha) and Ron Stollings (D-Boone) that said the RFRA law could not be used to invalidate anti-discrimination laws or ordinances. The Family Policy Council of West Virginia, which is pushing the bill, said the amendment essentially neutralizes the bill.
The vote followed an emotional debate where Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson) argued in favor of Palumbo’s amendment, saying he feared a RFRA law could be used to discriminate against the LGTB community.
“I don’t want us to go down this path,” said a tearful Carmichael. “I just don’t.”
Senate President Bill Cole (R-Mercer), who is a Republican candidate for governor, voted against the Palumbo amendment.
The action could spell the end of the RFRA bill. The House passed the measure earlier 72-26, but now with significantly different versions and time running out in the session, the fate of the bill is in doubt.
Religious conservatives have made RFRA one of their focal points this session, arguing that West Virginians needed additional protections for their deeply held beliefs. The House-passed bill codified that the “state may not substantially burden a person’s right to exercise of religion” unless the state has a “compelling interest.”
The measure is viewed as a pushback against a growing number of municipalities that have passed ordinances banning discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Palumbo said his amendment makes clear the RFRA law “could not be used in any way, shape or form to try to invalidate or not comply with non-discrimination or child vaccine laws.”
Palumbo also argued RFRA would give the state a black eye and damage the travel and tourism industry. But RFRA supporter Senator Robert Karnes (R-Upshur) took issue with that, rattling off a list of states that have passed similiar legislation.
“Can anybody seriously make the claim that having a RFRA law in the state of Texas and a RFRA law in the state of Florida has hampered their ability to see growth and job creation?” Karnes asked.
The bill will be up for final passage in the Senate Wednesday.