CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Senate President Mitch Carmichael said he favors the concept of a law preventing evictions or firings based on sexual orientation or sexual identity, but he can’t guarantee a bill would pass

Mitch Carmichael

“We need to find that out,” said Carmichael, R-Jackson. “When you move a society forward you have to bring everyone along. We’re trying to do that in the best way possible.”

Carmichael’s remarks were part of a panel discussion at the state Capitol, sponsored by Fairness West Virginia, a group that lobbies against discrimination based on sexual orientation or sexual identity.

Organizers and panelists singled out Carmichael for praise because of his participation. The Senate president said his faith teaches him to love all people, but his political experiences tells him to make no guarantees.

Jim Butler

Meanwhile, his Republican opponent in the upcoming primary election was speaking out against a nondiscrimination bill in a press release and on talk radio.

“These newly proposed laws are not about equality, they set up a circumstance where certain people have special protections rather than equality,” stated Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, who is running for the Senate seat that Carmichael has held since 2012.

Versions of the “West Virginia Fairness Act” have been introduced many times over the years. This past session, Democrats in the House of Delegates stood and pushed almost every day for the bill to be discharged from committee.

Andrew Schneider

But the leaders of Fairness West Virginia say this year could be different. They cited perceptions that public opinion is changing, plus an increasingly-bipartisan set of bill sponsors.

They say West Virginia can send a message of acceptance — and reap economic development benefits — by being the 21st state to pass comprehensive protections for LGBTQ people.

“Things have changed dramatically in our state,” Fairness West Virginia director Andrew Schneider said Tuesday morning in response to reporters’ questions. “The votes are there in the Senate. The votes are there in the House. There’s bipartisan support in the House and in the Senate.”

Danielle Walker

Delegate Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia and a speaker on the panel, said she thinks there is a good chance — if supporters speak out.

Walker, who has spoken passionately about nondiscrimination laws on the House floor, talked about her own son, who is gay.

“Words without works are a waste. My child is not a waste,” Walker said.

Carmichael cited his religious conviction as a reason to support a nondiscrimination bill.

“My faith teaches me to love all people, to recognize others, as the scripture tells us, as better than ourselves,” he said.

“When we put in place barriers, walls, legal structures that enable discrimination, it breaks our heart. People who are children of god being marginalized in society.”

Without naming Butler, Carmichael acknowledged his political opponent’s remarks.

“My being here is controversial because there is an expectation that this bill will run because of my appearance here,” Carmichael said. “That’s not necessarily the case.”

He said the legislative process would reveal the level of acceptance for a nondiscrimination bill. Meanwhile, Carmichael said, it’s important to have a public discussion.

“To be criticized for just participating in the discussion, it says more about those people than it does about the people who are here to try to genuinely move society forward,” Carmichael said.

“We should all care about discrimination. We should all want what is best for our fellow man.”

Victor Urecki

The panel included more people who spoke from religious or economic development perspectives.

“Their experiences are our experiences. What they go through is what we have gone through,” said Rabbi Victor Urecki of the B’Nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston.

“To love god is to recognize God’s image in every single human face.”

Dan Kimble

Another speaker, Rev. Dan Kimble of Bridgeport United Methodist Church, said “I am called to love all of God’s children.”

Kimble said he not only considers broad, philosophical issues of discrimination issues; he close family members who are part of the LGBTQ community.

“It breaks my heart that anyone, anyone – and in particular the LBTQ community — can still be fired, evicted simply for being who they are,” he said.

Hector Jeyakaran

An economic pitch came from Hector Jeyakaran, general manager of Embassy Suites. Fortune 500 companies that are booking conventions typically ask about inclusivity policies, Jeyakaran said.

“It makes no sense to me that we would not wholeheartedly endorse this fundamental American right to every member of our society,” he said.

Natalie Roper

Natalie Roper, executive director of Generation West Virginia, said that organization’s mission is to increase access to economic opportunity and to encourage thriving communities.

She said fear of discrimination can be a major factor when young people are deciding where they want to live and work.

“West Virginia needs to be a place where people can live and work knowing they’ll be free from discrimination of any kind,” Roper said.

Danielle Stewart, who leads the Human Rights Commission in Beckley, spoke from personal experience.

Stewart served more than 20 years in the Army, living as a man, and worried about returning home to West Virginia.

“I was scared. I was scared to come home because I knew how things were in West Virginia. There were no protections for me,” she said. “I came home thinking nobody was going to have my back now.”

Stewart started transitioning, growing her hair longer and wearing more feminine clothing and moved back home.

“I truly thought when I came out in Beckley that I would be run out of town,” Stewart said.

Fortunately, Stewart said, she has been accepted at work and in the community. But she has friends who have not been as lucky.

“It’s heartbreaking. It is time to change that,” she said. “West Virginia is ready to provide protections for all of its residents.”