CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A West Virginia bill described by supporters as a tool to protect religious freedom and labeled a “license to discriminate” by LGBTQ rights advocates is headed to the desk of Republican Gov. Jim Justice.
The “Equal Protection for Religion Act,” wasn’t expected to receive a vote until later in the session, but the GOP-supermajority Senate suspended legislative rules in order to vote on the bill Tuesday, just a day after it had passed in the House of Delegates.
The measure passed with support from every present Republican in the 34-member Senate. The only ‘no’ votes came from the Senate’s three Democrats, two of whom questioned why the bill was moving through the Legislature at lightning speed — typically measures have to be read multiple times on different days prior to getting a vote.
Before voting no, Democratic Sen. Mike Caputo of Marion County said he had “major, major, major concerns.”
“Quite frankly, I think this is hogwash, and I think the way this has been spun is disingenuous and upsetting,” he said.
The bill stipulates that the government would not be able to “substantially burden” someone’s constitutional right to freedom of religion unless doing so “in a particular situation is essential to further a compelling governmental interest.”
In cases where the government can prove to the courts there is a “compelling interest” to restrict that right, government officials must demonstrate that religious freedoms are being infringed upon in “the least restrictive means” possible.
At least 23 other states have religious freedom restoration acts like the one being proposed in West Virginia. The laws are modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton, which allows federal regulations that interfere with religious beliefs to be challenged.
Supporters have asserted that the bill is meant to protect all people against religious discrimination and is not aimed at any particular group. They’ve described it as a “judicial test” for courts to apply when people challenge government regulations they believe interfere with their constitutional right to religious freedom.
Eli Baumwell, advocacy director and interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, said the 1993 federal law was designed to protect people, especially religious minorities, from laws that affected their ability to engage in personal practices of their faith.
He said similar laws that have been passed by states in the years since have been pushed with different intents. Those laws have largely been promoted by organizations and people focused on “circumventing laws that require fair and equal treatment,” he said.
Cabell County Democratic Sen. Mike Woelfel, a bill opponent, asserted that the bill’s language would allow for discrimination against the LGBTQ community and religious minorities. He predicted it would not hold up in court.
“I’m going to respect the religions of other people,” he said. “And I’m going to respect other people that aren’t exactly like I am.”
Caputo also expressed concern that the bill could put nondiscrimination laws or ordinances that protect LGBTQ groups “in jeopardy.”
“I think it’s going to become the forefront of embarrassment again and show backwoods mentality for the state of West Virginia, when I think we can simplify it all: Why don’t we all just try to get along?” he said. “Why don’t we all just let people be what they want to be, and let them love who they want to love and practice their religion the way they want to practice their religion?”
Caputo said he hears Republicans talk constantly about wanting to bring more people to West Virginia, which was one of only three states to lose population in the 2020 U.S. Census.
“The problem is, maybe we should be listening to the younger people of this state. They hate stuff like this,” Caputo said. “They can’t even believe we’re talking about stuff like this. They want a more inclusive West Virginia. They don’t want to be having these types of discussions.”
GOP bill supporter Sen. Amy Grady said there’s been a lot of misinformation circulating about the measure: “We can’t violate somebody’s civil rights or human rights.”
Grady, the Senate Education chair, said that the bill is “not going to harm the people of West Virginia.”
“The bottom line is we shouldn’t punish someone for practicing their religion unless there’s a very good reason to do so,” she said.
The bill also dictates that the proposed law could not be used as an argument to defend abortion, which was effectively banned by West Virginia lawmakers last year. The provision was included as abortion rights groups are challenging abortion bans in some states by arguing the bans violate the religious rights of people with different beliefs.