West Virginia is poised to pass a bill protecting the religious convictions if its residents, though Democrats and liberal activists are doing everything they can to label supporters as bigots. Democrats had better look in the mirror, because many of them were for religious freedom before they were against it.
The West Virginia House of Delegates passed House Bill 4012, which will create the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. If signed into law, RFRA will create a balancing test for courts. The Federalist published a good explainer on how RFRA works.
The RFRA statutes, which currently bind nearly two dozen state governments as well as the federal government, require courts to use a simple balancing test when weighing the facts of specific religious freedom cases. The laws state that the government may only substantially burden the free exercise of religion of a person or organization if the government 1) has a compelling interest to do so, and 2) is using the least restrictive means possible to further that compelling interest. In legal parlance, RFRA requires courts to use strict scrutiny when adjudicating these types of cases.
HB 4012 passed the House 72-26, with 15 Democrats crossing over to make it a bipartisan vote. The bill is currently in the state Senate’s Judiciary Committee. Earlier this week Senator Ed Gaunch, a Republican representing Kanawha County, gave an impassioned speech supporting RFRA.
Democrat lawmakers, joined by several liberal/progressive groups, are working overtime to paint supporters of RFRA as backward bigots. On that February 11th vote seven Republicans, mostly from the state’s urban areas, were intimidated into voting against the bill. Language from Democrats in the House has been full of vitriol.
Delegate Stephen Skinner (D-Jefferson) charged the bill is hostile toward the gay community and invites discrimination. “What we publicly heard about this bill, is the reason for this bill is because of gay people.”
Yet, the House is where another effort to pass RFRA was partly successful. A RFRA bill, HB 2657, passed the House in 2012 by 92-2 with six absent. That bill had a Democrat lead sponsor and the bill that was passed was a committee substitute. The Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that year was Tim Miley, a Democrat from Harrison County. Miley not only steered the bill through his committee, but he voted with the majority to pass it, though it died in the Senate.
In fact, there have been 15 RFRA bills introduced in the West Virginia Legislature since 2008. Out of those 15 bills, 12 had Democrats as lead sponsors. Miley, who was Speaker of the House from 2013 to 2015, was lead sponsor of an RFRA bill – HB 2873 – in 2011. Miley co-sponsored two other RFRA bills: HB 4450 and HB 4571, both introduced in 2008.
RFRA has had trouble getting out of committee on the Senate side. Yet Senator Jeff Kessler, a Marshall County Democrat who serves as Minority Leader and was Senate President from 2010 to 2015, co-sponsored RFRA in 2008 and was lead sponsor of RFRA bills in 2009 and 2010. Kessler has also sponsored legislation prohibiting employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation, including an EHNDA bill in 2010. It says a lot that the same man who sought to protect the rights of the LGBTQ community also believed the religious community needed their rights protected as well.
And that’s the point. RFRA is not a sword to take rights away from the gay or transgendered community. It’s merely a shield to ensure the rights of religious people are also not being infringed. Ever since the Democrats lost the West Virginia statehouse in 2015, they use bills – such as RFRA – as a club to attack Republicans and look good to their base for the cameras. Yet, many of these same Democrats thought RFRA was important enough to introduce it multiple times.
There is a bunch of misinformation about RFRA, but it’s had Democrat support before. Take Senator Bob Beach, a Democrat from Monongalia County, who tweeted the following recently:
A majority of people throughout the state realize RFRA is wrong for WV. Why can’t the House get this one right? Kill the bill and move on.
— Senator Bob Beach (@SenatorBobBeach) February 11, 2016
Beach was a co-sponsor of HB 2524, a RFRA bill, in 2010 when he was a member of the House of Delegates.
If RFRA was so bad, why did they spend seven years trying to pass it?