Over two decades after the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (also known as RFRA) was signed into law in order to “ensure that interests in religious freedom are protected,” the legislature in West Virginia has introduced House Bill 4012. This “License to Discriminate Bill” not only rejects our state motto, but it also further creates a second class citizenship in our state and jeopardizes our state economically. The United States Supreme Court held RFRA unconstitutional as not a proper exercise of Congress’s enforcement power, but in response twenty-one states have passed their own RFRAs.
In 2014, the Supreme Court ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. recognized a for-profit corporation’s claim of religious belief. Following this ruling many states have since proposed expanding state RFRA laws to include for-profit corporations. This bill in West Virginia is similar to a bill passed in Arizona and vetoed by Republican Governor Jan Brewer in 2014, and another bill passed in Indiana and signed into law by Republican Governor Mike Pence in 2015. Ultimately these bills are nothing more than an attempt by conservatives to further oppose same-sex marriage. These bills have historically been used to allow discrimination of LGBTQ people but extend to also affect individuals based on race, religion, color, etc.
West Virginia can’t afford to follow Indiana’s lead. Last year, this bill signed into law by Governor Pence was greatly condemned by businesses and citizens alike and resulted in a loss of an estimated $ 60 million in tourism money. We can’t afford this type of loss in West Virginia. More importantly we cannot continue to send the message that it is acceptable to discriminate against people in this state as a result of their sexual orientation and gender identity. This is just another reason why West Virginia consistently sees more people moving out of the state rather than moving into the state.
My friends who have left West Virginia for more progressive places constantly ask me questions. They want to know “when are you going to give in and move,” or “When are you going to stop fighting this losing battle, and live your life somewhere where you don’t have to fight these battles daily,” or “why do you want to live there at this point?” I am at a point where I don’t even know how to answer their questions. It is astounding to me how we continue to attempt to create second class citizenship for LGBTQ people in West Virginia. If this bill passes, any West Virginia citizen or visitor to our state can be refused service by restaurants, bakeries, movie theaters, hotels, ski resorts, white water rafting companies, but they can also be refused service by doctors, nurses, EMT’s, pharmacists, funeral directors, etc. Furthermore, an employee could also sue their employer if the business/business owner forces them to serve these individuals against their will.
Our state motto as adopted in 1863 states “Montani Semper Liberi” (or Mountaineers Always Free.” This bill abridges our own motto and jeopardizes basic human rights. Many state and local nondiscrimination laws go above and beyond the federal Human Rights Act and this bill gives a “License to Discriminate.” The First Amendment to the Constitution already guarantees Religious Freedom protections but this bill if passed will allow overt discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. Many of the aforementioned groups already experience covert discrimination based on the same demographics and I can only imagine how this bill will manifest itself in reality if passed.
Thankfully I teach at a university that is ahead of the curve in West Virginia. However, I know that many of my students will be looking for jobs in places outside of Morgantown upon graduation. It is imperative that we stop sending the message that discrimination is an accepted norm in West Virginia. We still live in a state where an individual can be refused a job or can be fired from a job based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. We still live in a state where an individual can be refused housing or can lose housing based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. This bill is merely political subterfuge by conservatives who want to further legalize discrimination in West Virginia. It is our responsibility to oppose this bill and fight to ensure that “Montani Semper Liberi.”
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