Will West Virginia go down the path of 20 other states and pass a religious freedom bill which many who are concerned with LGBT equality say will become a license to discriminate?
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), also known as HB 4012, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee last week on a vote of 16-9. As has been the case with many other RFRA bills, which exempt religious groups and individuals from certain state laws, LGBT equality advocates are concerned that such exemptions will mean that churches, businesses, other institutions, and individuals will be given the legal freedom to discriminate against sexual and gender minorities, if they believe that interacting with them would violate their “sincerely held religious beliefs,” in the language of the bill. Other groups which advocate for racial and religious minorities, are similarly concerned that the bill could hurt their constituents’ civil rights. The bill now goes for a vote of the full House.
West Virginia is not a very Catholic state, with only about 6% of the population identifying as such, but Catholics there are involved in the public discussion of the bill. Last week, Wheeling Jesuit University’s (WJU) Appalachian Institute hosted a forum on LGBT issues in the state, and the discussion featured perspectives on the bill. One of the guest speakers was Andrew Schneider, the executive director of Fairness West Virginia, the state’s LGBT equality organization. The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register reported:
“Schneider said a bill pending in the Legislature, the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, would allow businesses to refuse service to anyone, including LGBT residents, if they feel providing a service is against their religion. According to Scheneider, similar laws passed in Indiana and has cost that state millions of dollars in revenue.
” ‘People of faith, like myself and yourself, receive more protection than any other group or protected class in this country,’ Schneider said. ‘The concept that when you’re in the marketplace engaging in commercial activity for public accommodation, you are supposed to serve everyone. … Your religious freedom cannot infringe on the rights of others. RFRA claims religious rights are special and trump others.’ “
Showing the split nature that exists in the Catholic Church on issues like this, Fr. Brian O’Donnell, SJ, the research director of the Wheeling Jesuit’s Appalachian Institute, the organization which sponsored the event which invited Schneider, has expressed support for the bill. O’Donnell, who is also the executive secretary of the West Virginia Catholic Conference, said in an email that the Catholic hierarchy supports the 1993 federal RFRA, and that, further:
“The WV bills in question are almost exact copies of the federal statute. Insofar as the state laws echo the federal RFRA, the Diocese [of Wheeling-Charleston] is in favor of the legislation.”
Yet, the newspaper account of the forum also quoted another religious figure associated with the university who opposed the bill:
“Sister Barbara Kupchak, a former WJU employee and nurse, said she opposes HB 4012.
” ‘As a health care worker, if this passes and I would decide a Muslim, gay person, or whoever offends my religion, I could refuse them treatment,’ Kupchak. ‘That’s not right and not constitutional.’ “
At the WJU forum, the Fairness West Virginia director noted that even without the RFRA law, LGBT citizens in the state are already very vulnerable:
“Schneider added LGBT individuals are still legally denied employment, housing and other public services due to their sexual orientation, with only six West Virginia cities having non-discrimination ordinances on the books. He believes Wheeling should consider adopting such an ordinance to grow business opportunity in the Ohio Valley.
” ‘Now that marriage equality has arrived in West Virginia and the country, LGBT non-discrimination laws have become even more important,’ Schneider said. ‘Those laws protect LGBT people from discrimination for employment, housing and public accommodation. They’re more important now with marriage equality because marriage has made our community both more visible, and therefore more vulnerable.’
The Gazette-Mail newspaper in Charleston, the state’s capital, editorialized against the bill, comparing it to the debacle in Indiana last year when, after passing a similar bill, businesses put up such a protest that the governor ended up vetoing it. The editorial, headlined “Republicans’ anti-business bill,” makes an economic case against the measure:
“All such a law would shield against is prosperity and better quarterly earnings. West Virginia doesn’t need this type of prejudice. Kill the bill.”
It’s a bit sad to say, in a way, but perhaps the economy will win over morality in this debate, just as it did in Indiana.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry