West Virginians clash over religious freedom bill at hearing

Feb 24, 2023, 2:21 AM | Updated: 4:49 pm
In this image provided by the WV Legislative Photography, Catherine Jones watches people speak duri...

In this image provided by the WV Legislative Photography, Catherine Jones watches people speak during public hearing in the House of Delegates Chamber for a bill that would codify the right of West Virginia residents to challenge government regulations that interfere with their religious beliefs, Friday, Feb. 24, 2023, at the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. Jones, a gay woman who spoke against the bill, said it is going to do nothing but "legalize discrimination against already marginalized communities." (Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography via AP)

(Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography via AP)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Some people said West Virginia needs a law to codify the right of residents to challenge government regulations that interfere with their religious beliefs because of growing threats to their constitutional freedoms.

Others who spoke during a public hearing at the state Capitol Friday said they are worried the proposal advancing in the Legislature will be used as a tool to discriminate against LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups.

“Exercising your religion does not mean discriminating or condemning people because they do not have same beliefs as you,” said Jessica Eplin, who said she is worried about how the proposed law could affect her as an atheist and her child, who is transgender.

The bill, which passed the House Judiciary Committee earlier this week and is now before the full House of Delegates, would require a government entity to have a compelling reason to burden someone’s constitutional right to freedom of religion and to meet its goals in the least restrictive way possible.

A similar bill failed in 2016 after lawmakers voiced concerns about how it could affect LGBTQ residents. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael wiped away tears on the Senate floor as he spoke in support of Democratic-proposed amendment that would bar the legislation from being used to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

The bill also dictates that the proposed law could not be used to permit access to abortion, which was banned by West Virginia lawmakers last year. The provision was included as abortion rights groups are challenging abortion bans in some states by arguing the bans — supported by certain religious principles — violate the religious rights of people with different beliefs.

Republican sponsors say the bill has good intentions. Del. Chris Pritt of Kanawha County, who is a Christian, said the bill would make West Virginia attractive to economic development. He said it’s not just about protecting Christians, but religious minorities in the state, too.

But Catherine Jones, a gay woman, said the bill would do nothing but “legalize discrimination against already marginalized communities.” She said she fears the bill could allow businesses to challenge city ordinances prohibiting discrimination in housing or employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“I should not be afraid of not being served at a restaurant because I have a different relationship than you do,” she told lawmakers. “This bill will do nothing but spread hate and violence across our state.”

At least 23 other states have religious freedom restoration acts. The laws are similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, which allows federal regulations that interfere with religious beliefs to be challenged.

Eli Baumwell, advocacy director and the Interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, said the 1993 federal law was designed to designed to protect people, especially religious minorities, from laws that affected their ability to engage in personal practices of their faith.

“Unfortunately, people have seized upon a good idea and turn it a shield into a sword,” said Baumwell, who spoke in opposition to the bill. “RFRAs today are promoted by organizations and ideologies and aren’t concerned about individual religious observances. They’re focused on circumventing laws that require fair and equal treatment.”

People who spoke in support of the bill said they were concerned about the government imposing vaccination requirements against people’s religious beliefs and restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic that limited in-person worship in states across the U.S.

Monica Ballard Booth said she supports the bill because she wants to see equal protection for people of all faiths. “Since some have questioned why this was necessary, I’ll tell you why it’s necessary: Christians are the most persecuted group in the world,” she said.

Pastor Bo Burgess of West Virginia Baptists for Biblical Values said he doesn’t believe the bill could be used to discriminate against anyone — it’s about protecting people from discrimination, she said.

“This legislation doesn’t allow me or a business to go around and attack other people groups,” he said. “There’s no people group language in the bill.”

Baptist Pastor Dan Stevens of Wood County said people like him want the same benefits of equal protection as people who oppose the bill.

“We live out our firmly held religious beliefs and convictions about marriage, the family, human sexuality, the value of human life from conception to the grave without fear,” he said. “This bill designed not as a tool of discrimination used by people of faith but to protect the people of faith against discrimination for those who are opposed to our beliefs and our lifestyle.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


File - Credit cards as seen July 1, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. A low credit score can hurt your ability...
Associated Press

What the Fed rate increase means for your credit card bill

The Federal Reserve raised its key rate by another quarter point Wednesday, bringing it to the highest level in 15 years as part of an ongoing effort to ease inflation by making borrowing more expensive.
15 hours ago
police lights distracted drivers shooting...
Associated Press

Authorities: Missing mom, daughter in Washington found dead

A missing Washington state woman and her daughter were found dead Wednesday, according to police.
15 hours ago
Associated Press

Google’s artificially intelligent ‘Bard’ set for next stage

Google announced Tuesday it's allowing more people to interact with “ Bard,” the artificially intelligent chatbot the company is building to counter Microsoft's early lead in a pivotal battleground of technology.
2 days ago
Evelyn Knapp, a supporter of former President Donald, waves to passersby outside of Trump's Mar-a-L...
Associated Press

Trump legal woes force another moment of choosing for GOP

From the moment he rode down the Trump Tower escalator to announce his first presidential campaign, a searing question has hung over the Republican Party: Is this the moment to break from Donald Trump?
3 days ago
FILE - The Silicon Valley Bank logo is seen at an open branch in Pasadena, Calif., on March 13, 202...
Associated Press

Army of lobbyists helped water down banking regulations

It seemed like a good idea at the time: Red-state Democrats facing grim reelection prospects would join forces with Republicans to slash bank regulations — demonstrating a willingness to work with President Donald Trump while bucking many in their party.
3 days ago
FILE - This Sept. 2015, photo provided by NOAA Fisheries shows an aerial view of adult female South...
Associated Press

Researchers: Inbreeding a big problem for endangered orcas

People have taken many steps in recent decades to help the Pacific Northwest's endangered killer whales, which have long suffered from starvation, pollution and the legacy of having many of their number captured for display in marine parks.
4 days ago

Sponsored Articles

SHIBA volunteer...

Volunteer to help people understand their Medicare options!

If you’re retired or getting ready to retire and looking for new ways to stay active, becoming a SHIBA volunteer could be for you!
safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
West Virginians clash over religious freedom bill at hearing