W.Va. Senate kills religious objection bill

Jonathan Mattise - Associated Press

CHARLESTON (AP) — West Virginia senators resoundingly killed a religious objections bill Wednesday, just one day after amending the measure to stamp out fears from business that it would sanction discrimination in the name of faith.

After no debate Wednesday, the Republican-led Senate voted down the bill by a 27-7 margin. Lawmakers cited different reasons for their opposition: some thought the amended bill didn’t do enough to protect religious freedom. Others believed Tuesday’s amendment only made a bad bill better.

The bill would have let a person challenge a governmental body in court that has made him or her follow a particular state or local law that goes counter to a deeply held religious belief.

Companies from AT&T to Dow Chemical voiced opposition to the proposal. Many business interests pointed to a similar law passed in Indiana. That law may have cost a potential $60 million when groups didn’t hold conventions in Indianapolis and cited the law as a reason why, according to the tourism group Visit Indy.

After sometimes tearful debate Tuesday, West Virginia senators approved a Democratic amendment that ensured the bill wouldn’t trump nondiscrimination ordinances, which exist in eight cities. The state doesn’t list gay or transgender people in housing and employment protections, so several cities passed protections.

It also said the bill would not override child vaccination requirements. West Virginia’s vaccination laws are some of the nation’s strictest.

In an email to its mailing list Tuesday, the socially conservative group Family Policy Council of West Virginia said the amendment rendered “virtually all the protections for religious freedom gone, but the bill has been turned into the most aggressive pro-gay rights bill being considered in any state legislature in America.”

“I think it’s telling that when they found out they couldn’t discriminate, they didn’t want the bill anymore,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall.

The American Civil Liberties Union and gay rights group also applauded the Senate’s vote.

The bill’s demise is a loss for the more socially conservative House of Delegates. House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, was a key advocate of the bill, which had already passed the House.

“I’m disappointed in today’s outcome,” Armstead said in a statement. “The defeat of this bill was driven by the negative hyperbole and misinformation that incorrectly characterized the purpose of this legislation. This bill absolutely did not condone or encourage discrimination in any way.”

Senate President Bill Cole, a Mercer County Republican running for governor, helped vote down the bill Wednesday. He said his vote was in support of the original House version. He also voted against the nondiscrimination amendment. The Democrats vying for governor — Kessler, Booth Goodwin and Jim Justice — all opposed the bill.

Cole, a car dealer, added that his businesses don’t tolerate discrimination.

“We each have to live our lives as we see fit, and I know what my beliefs and feelings are, and that’s how I’ll go forward,” Cole said.

Jonathan Mattise

Associated Press