House Judiciary holds public hearing concerning the proposed ‘Equal Protection for Religion Act’

By Matthew Young, RealWV

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

That’s what Gary Zuckett of the WV Citizen Action Group told members of the House Judiciary Committee during Friday’s public hearing regarding HB 3042, the “Equal Protection for Religion Act.”

“Religious freedoms are enshrined in our constitution, and we don’t need this kind of legislation muddying the waters,” Zuckett said, before adding, “ If it ain’t broke, don’t break it. I don’t need my government protecting or enforcing my religious views. They are personal and private.”

House Judiciary Committee Vice-chair Del. Tom Fast, R-Fayette, served as moderator for Friday’s public hearing regarding HB 3042.

Sponsored by Del. Jonathan Pinson, R-Mason, HB 3042 is designed to prohibit “excessive government limitations on exercise of religion,” by “forbidding government from treating religious conduct more restrictively than any conduct of reasonably comparable risk,” or by “forbidding government from treating religious conduct more restrictively than comparable conduct because of alleged economic need or benefit.”

Del. Jonathan Pinson, R-Mason.

The ambiguity stems, not from what the bill says, but rather what it does not. Nowhere in the bill is any language which prohibits private businesses from discrimination based upon one’s religious beliefs. However, an amendment proposed by Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, seeks to address that apparent oversight by requiring that private businesses post signage informing potential customers if they plan to refuse service for what they deem to be unacceptable religious beliefs or practices. 

“Lawmakers here are telling citizens to leave the state, and that it’s about to get a lot worse here if you disagree with them,” Jessica Eppling, one of the hearing’s speakers, told committee members. “They (lawmakers) have called rape victims ‘pathetic,’ voted against parental rights, voted against you being able to make healthcare decisions.”

“They (lawmakers) have allowed preachers to come here and say that we all deserve to burn in hell,” Eppling continued. “Some support organizations that are planning to ban birth control. We arrest women for talking too loud – all in the name of Jesus. Most (lawmakers) won’t return a phone call or email, and the sponsors of these bills, most of the time, don’t show up to these hearings or reach out to professionals.”

“They (lawmakers) are not addressing the real problems in West Virginia, and I think most of them are out of touch with reality,” Eppling added. “They (lawmakers) want a gun in every school, but not a tutoring program. Exercising your religion does not mean discriminating or condemning people because they do not have the same beliefs as you.” 

Although most spoke in opposition, one of the few citizens to speak in favor of HB 3042 was Dr. Timothy Holtsclaw, who said, “I’m excited about this bill.”

“This bill is not to divide, but to unify and protect the First Amendment for all faiths from the overreaching of government,” Holtsclaw added. “We saw this overreaching during COVID, with churches around our nation being fined tens-of-thousands of dollars for just meeting for services, while other entities and businesses were open for business. This is overreaching.”

“This bill is not about discrimination of race,” Holtsclaw noted. “It is not about the discrimination of gender. It is about the constitutional-right we all have to the pursuit of happiness and our worship.”

Another speaker, Kathryn Jones, did not share Holtsclaw’s views. When it was her turn to speak, Jones told the committee that, “This bill is going to do nothing but legalize discrimination for already marginalized communities,” while her mother, Veronica Jones, said, “You want to create a law that will literally open the door for hate crimes against a community that you don’t agree with.”

Next to the podium was Rose Winland, who began by talking about “freedom, as I see it, in our legislature.”

“This religious freedom took away my right to bodily-autonomy,” Winland said. “This religious freedom is attempting to take away parental rights and decide what is best for the health of a child. This religious freedom has casually and regularly overstepped in schools throughout West Virginia who subject faculty, staff, and students to majority religious pressure through Christian prayer regardless of the spectrum of religious beliefs in attendance.”

“This religious freedom negatively permeates our culture,” Winland continued. “Just yesterday, a group of Muslims gathering peacefully on our Capitol steps were jeered at… by legislators. This religious freedom ends where my freedom from your religion begins. It doesn’t need to be restored. It needs to be respectful and reciprocal.” 

“Do better than you’ve been doing,” Winland concluded. “Vote ‘no’ this time, for Christ’s sake.”

RealWV will provide updates regarding the status of HB 3042 as additional information is made available. 

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