The West Virginia House of Delegates has advanced a bill that would allow any business or individual to cite religious beliefs as an excuse not to obey any state or local law, something that critics say would enable discrimination against LGBT people and other minority groups.
The House of Delegates approved the measure Thursday by a vote of 72-26, sending it on to the state Senate, the Associated Press reports. It had bipartisan support, with several Democrats joining Republicans in voting for it, while a few Republicans voted against it, the AP notes.
LGBT rights groups denounced the legislation, House Bill 4012. "Freedom of religion is a core American value, which is exactly why it is already protected by the First Amendment, Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow said in a post on HRC's blog. "Rather than protecting our freedom, HB 4012 would put LGBT people at risk for discrimination and go even further, allowing a person to use HB 4012 as a defense against child abuse or allow a pharmacist to argue he is not required to provide birth control."
"Sponsors and supporters of the bill have admitted this measure is a direct retaliation against marriage equality and recent advancements in LGBT discrimination protection," added Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness WV, in the same post. "It's clear that this legislation seeks to target the LGBT community in West Virginia and jeopardize the right of local governments to protect their citizens from discrimination." West Virginia has no statewide law banning anti-LGBT discrimination, but seven cities within the state do.
Several corporations, newspapers, and chambers of commerce have expressed opposition to the bill, saying it would harm the state's reputation and make it difficult to attract business. They noted the backlash against religious refusal legislation passed in Indiana last year; the state ultimately amended it but is still feeling repercussions, with tourists and convention planners stating reluctance to visit or do business in the state.
The West Virginia bill is not assured of further progress. State Senate President Bill Cole, a Republican, called it "a tough one" and has yet to take a position on it, the AP reports. And Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, said he would consider vetoing it, should it pass the Senate.
Indiana's situation, he told the AP, "should have sent a signal to West Virginia of what the consequences may be if you pass a divisive bill like that."