Some of Morgantown and West Virginia University’s leaders are worried a bill lawmakers are expected to pass will open a Pandora’s Box of potential lawsuits and a license to discriminate members of the LGBT community.
That bill, HB 4012, attempts to “restore religious freedom” by establishing the legal process by which a person could prove a state law or agency infringed upon their right to freely exercise their religion.
“If people are coming here for any kind of relaxation or vacation and a business doesn’t want to serve them based on its religious beliefs, who would want to come back?” said Morgantown’s mayor, Marti Shamberger. “I think (Morgantown’s) diversity and inclusion is what makes people want to come here, because their employees and family are comfortable here.”
Critics of the bill have called it a “license to discriminate.”
The bill passed 16-9 through the House of Delegate’s Judiciary committee last week, with some Democrats in favor of it. The bill is scheduled to go before the House Floor on Thursday for its first reading.
Fairness WV, a LGBT advocacy group, is planning a conference in the lower rotunda of the Capitol today. The group is helping municipalities across the state adopt their own LGBT non-discrimination ordinances or resolutions.
Morgantown became the state’s second city to pass any form of LGBT non-discrimination ordinance in February of 2014.
“You know, we teach our children to celebrate our differences,” Shamberger said. “If something like this would pass, I just feel like we’re going so far backward instead of forward.”
One of HB 4012’s 10 sponsors is Del. Rupert Phillips Jr., D-Logan. He told the Gazette-Mail the bill “pretty much” stems from opposing same-sex marriage.
Del. Barbara Fleishcauer, D-Monongalia, suggested an amendment to the bill that would make clear it’s not to be used as a means to discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation.
Fleischauer’s amendment was ruled “not germane.”
Business leaders across the state also worry about the harm the bill could potentially cause for the state’s economy. Last week, a bipartisan coalition of businesses called Opportunity West Virginia called for small and big business owners to reject all forms of discrimination.
“With West Virginia facing a $350 million budget deficit, we can’t afford to scare jobs and investments away,” said Jill Rice, OWV spokeswoman. “We should be focusing legislative efforts on creating a strong business climate that fosters a culture of inclusion, not promoting discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.”
Members of WVU’s Student Government Association unanimously passed a resolution condemning the bill. The resolution, sponsored by SGA Governor Sean Fitzwater, cites the University’s governing policy to not discriminate on the basis of, among other things, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
At its regular meeting Monday, WVU’s faculty senate unanimously approved a resolution condemning HB 4012.
“This is a discriminatory bill. There’s no question about it,” said T. Anne Hawkins, chair of WVU’s Commission for LGBTQ Equity. “West Virginians tend to watch out for each other, and they won’t stand for this.”