By Matthew Young, RealWV
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – “We talk about how we want local government to have local control and make local decisions, until it’s something we don’t like – then we know what’s best for our municipalities.”
That’s what Sen. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said during an impassioned floor speech in the Senate Chamber Wednesday evening. The focus of Caputo’s outrage was the Senate’s rushing through of HB 3042, the “Equal Protection for Religion Act.”
“We always say that all kinds are welcome in our state, and we want to welcome them with open arms,” Caputo continued. “Unless maybe they don’t look like us. Unless maybe they don’t talk like us. Unless maybe they don’t think like us. And most importantly, unless maybe if they don’t love like us.”
The Equal Protection for Religion Act is a new iteration of 2016’s failed Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Sponsored by Del. Jonathan Pinson, R-Mason, HB 3042 is designed to prohibit “excessive government limitations on exercise of religion.” The bill was first presented in the House Judiciary Committee last Wednesday. At a public hearing held on Friday, lawmakers were met with overwhelming public opposition to the legislation.
Those lawmakers, however, were undeterred. HB 3042 passed the House of Delegates yesterday by a party-line vote of 86 to 12 before being rushed through the Senate on Tuesday. In order to complete the legislative process in under a week, the Senate, once again, chose to circumvent constitutional-rules requiring that bills be read on three separate days, and moved immediately to a floor vote.
Prior to Caputo expressing his frustration and disagreement to both the bill and the rule suspension, Senate Minority Leader Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, took the opportunity to express his, saying, “So, we’re moving very fast here.”
Woelfel questioned the placement of language in the bill which forbids the use of “religious freedom” to justify the practice of abortion, noting that the language appears to be a direct assault on the Jewish faith.
“The reason that’s in the bill is because, in the Torah – been around a long time, the Torah – the Book of Exodus,” Woelfel said. “People that have the Jewish faith believe that life begins when the first breath is taken. Now that’s not my personal belief, but that’s been a part of the Jewish faith for a long time.”
“I submit to you the reason that’s in this bill is to discriminate against one group of people,” Woelfel added. “They have the same right to exercise their freedom of religion. On page one (of the bill) we protect the people who see the world the same way that we do if we’re Christians. Then on page two, we deny that same freedom to the Jewish faith.”
“I’ll tell you right now, that’s not going to hold up,” Woelfel continued. “That will declare this bill unconstitutional – a magistrate court would figure that one out. That’s what happens when we get in a hurry. I don’t know why the House (of Delegates) would put that in there. You can’t say you’re protecting religious freedom, and then discriminate against one religion in the same bill.”
“I suspect this is going to lead to situations where discrimination occurs against folks that are gay or lesbian,” Woelfel added. “If they are married, they will not be rented-to because somebody wants to exercise their fundamental right to religion.”
“If somebody wants to discriminate based on religion, here we go – it’s going to happen,” Woelfel concluded.
Speaking in favor of the bill, Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, said, “This helps protect religious freedom from government intrusion. It gives all people that have deeply held religious beliefs a fair day in court if the government infringes on those freedoms.”
“I’ve stated this, and I’ll state it again because it’s really important,” Grady continued. “This is not a tool for discrimination, it is a shield to protect all people. It’s not a sword that attacks a specific group of people – it’s a shield to protect.”
Much the same as it did in the House, HB 3042 passed the Senate by a straight-party vote of 30 to 3. It is now for Gov. Jim Justice to decide if he agrees with Grady about the bill being a “shield to protect,” or if he agrees with Caputo, who believes “it is a license to discriminate.”
RealWV will provide updates regarding the status of HB 3042 as additional information is made available.