CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A “religious freedom” bill that would exempt business owners, service providers and individuals from being discriminated against is before the House Judiciary Committee.
On Thursday morning, nearly 60 people spoke either for or against the West Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act (HB 4012) during a public hearing in the House Chamber.
The legislation says a business or individual can use his or her “sincerely held” religious beliefs as a legal defense in a court proceeding.
Supporters like Allen Whitt, the president of the Family Policy Council of West Virginia, said the bill would protect people of those rights, but it would not guarantee a person to win their case.
“It’s designed to protect sincerely held beliefs up until the point where the government chooses to burden your religion, which they have the right to do, so some cases the court case is going to allow the government to actually rule against them,” Whitt said on Thursday’s MetroNews “Talkline” at the state Capitol.
He argued it would protect business owners who refuse service to customers based on their religious beliefs. Critics say the bill would allow for discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Charleston resident Barbara Stanky spoke about her former partner and how they raised a son who now attends West Virginia University. She was one of the many speakers who was against the legislation.
“I can’t imagine bringing him into a restaurant when he was younger and being refused service because someone didn’t like our family’s structure,” she said.
Others called for changes to the bill including Justin Murdock, a local business man in Huntington.
“I would implore some committee members of the Judiciary to please amend this bill to save me the indignity of going into a place and being humiliated by being denied service,” he said.
Murdock said he would like for anyone using the bill’s exemption to have a sign on their door outlining what the business will or will not serve.
“Just put right on your front door ‘No Jews. No blacks. No Muslims. No gays’ and that will save us the hassle and the indignity,” he said.
Herb Montgomery, a pastor from Lewisburg, said the bill would possibly take away from all that is good with religion.
“Where we want to not restrict the good that religion would do, we want to also not give, according to our state Constitution, undo privilege and undo advantages to religions where they can do harm to others that others cannot do,” he said.
“If this goes through, my fear is that those who we work for in the LGBT community will also suffer ongoing tremendous abuse,” Montgomery added.
In all, 21 states have passed “religious freedom” laws.
A federal version of the law was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993 to ensure interests in religious freedoms are protected.
The House Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the bill Friday.