We at Protect Thy Neighbor have been following the progress of West Virginia’s RFRA bill, HB 4012, closely since its introduction in January. Now, we’re pleased to report that the Senate voted down this harmful bill last night by a vote of 27-7.
For those of you not following closely, RFRA stands for “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” and, as introduced, it would have created a potential religious exemption to each and every state and local law in West Virginia. That included potentially creating religious exemptions to laws that protect LGBT West Virginians from discrimination.
The bill’s death knell came after the Senate amended the bill with language that prohibited it from being used to trump existing and future civil rights laws. According to Senator Robert Karnes, an original supporter of the bill, the amendment “totally gutted the bill and actually turned it into a bill that was hostile to religious freedom.” His statement and reversal of position demonstrates that supporters wanted for the bill to be used to trump nondiscrimination laws.
After the Senate adopted the nondiscrimination amendment, the Family Policy Council of West Virginia resorted to false claims and scare tactics:
“The Family Policy Council, which opposes same-sex marriage and other laws meant to expand rights to the LGBT community, has told its supporters that local nondiscrimination ordinances that expand protections to the LGBT community allow men to put on dresses, sneak into women's bathrooms and assault women and children. The organization used the same rhetoric to oppose Tuesday's amendment.
Senator Corey Palumbo, one of the authors of the contested nondiscrimination amendment, refuted these arguments:
“When you say [that because] you can't use this bill to invalidate nondiscrimination ordinances, that that 'guts the bill,' then you know what the bill's about… When you get people saying that this amendment would allow men to go into women's bathrooms, that's just absurd fearmongering. That's all that is. We have nondiscrimination ordinances in all kinds of cities. Where has that ever happened?...It's disingenuous, at the least, and intentionally false and misleading, at the worst, and that's what the proponents — not the proponents in the Legislature, but the outside proponents — are trying to do is scare people. They're being totally dishonest, and it's despicable.”
We applaud the legislators who spoke out and voted to protect laws against discrimination. Of course, the addition of the nondiscrimination provision didn’t solve all of the problems with the RFRA, as it could have still been used to harm people in a variety of other ways. So, we are equally pleased that the bill was ultimately killed by the Senate.