Del. Tom Fast, R-Fayette, during Wednesday's meeting of the House Judiciary Committee. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

We’re a week out from Crossover Day, the deadline for bills to pass their chamber of origin, and things are starting to move quickly. 

Keep scrolling for more on a bill that could reduce pretrial detention. It will require quick action to get out of the Senate before the deadline. Also, DHHR could soon be split into three as a bill heads to the governor’s desk after passing both chambers by wide margins.

But first, a bill is moving that could open the door to discrimination against LGBTQ individuals on the basis of religious freedom.

Religious freedom bill could legalize LGBTQ discrimination

West Virginia delegates are advancing a bill that critics say could legalize discrimination of LGBTQ West Virginians and others on the grounds of religious freedom. On its face, the bill would create a legal test for any individual or corporation claiming that a state or local law interferes with a “sincerely held” religious belief.

“The examples I hear indicate that if you’re a Christian, you have to back down, eat your religion, and you don’t have a leg to stand on,” said Del. Tom Fast, R-Fayette, during the House Judiciary Committee today. “But this bill says, ‘wait a minute.’ If you’re a Christian, if you’re a Muslim, if you’re a Hindu — whatever religion you are — if there is an otherwise neutral bill that infringes on sincerely held religious beliefs, now you have a case.”

But critics noted such protections could allow individuals or businesses to discriminate against, or even deny essential services such as housing or medical treatment, to LGBTQ people.

These concerns are not just hypothetical. Similar bills have passed in numerous states, and led to complicated legal questions about what generally illegal behaviors could be allowable on the grounds of religious freedom. A Texas judge ruled last year that a provision of the Affordable Care Act requiring employer health insurance to cover PrEP medication preventing the spread of HIV violated the state’s religious freedom laws. In Illinois, a Catholic hospital network used a similar law to justify denying coverage of fertility treatments to employees in same-sex partnerships.

Republican lawmakers have repeatedly introduced measures like this for years. A similar bill passed the House in 2016, but was voted down in the Senate after it was amended to include explicit protections for LGBTQ West Virginians.

Jill Rice, president of the business coalition Opportunity West Virginia, told committee members she was concerned that a bill perceived to allow discrimination could have a negative impact on business investment in the state. She said that Secretary of Economic Development Mitch Carmichael recently told her coalition that companies interested in relocating to the state have been calling him concerned about what she called “discriminatory bills” like the one before the committee.

One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Del. Chris Pritt, R-Kanawha, rejected the bill’s label as discriminatory.

“This is not just to protect the religious majority,” Pritt said. “What this bill does is it actually goes and protects religious minorities.”

However, Jewish Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, noted a particular exemption seemed targeted at the practice of his own religion. The bill explicitly lays out that the law would not apply to abortion restrictions — and in other states, groups have argued abortion bans and religious freedom laws can’t coexist as many interpretations of Jewish law generally allow the practice.  

The bill passed committee today as other anti-LGBTQ bills continue to move through the legislative process. HB 2007 would ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors in the state. Another bill that would allow a small minority of citizens to force a vote on any local ordinances has also moved through one committee in the House. In some municipalities that already have such ordinances, they have been used to force referendums on non-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ residents.

A public hearing on the bill will be held this Friday at 4 p.m. —Ian Karbal

This bill could reduce pretrial detention. Will lawmakers advance it in time?

Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Trump is the chair of the committee. Photo courtesy WV Legislative Photography.

Danni Dineen spent part of her pregnancy in 2021 shackled to a hospital bed. After giving birth, she was returned to a West Virginia jail where she was held without bond. 

The reason was a capias, a type of warrant issued when a defendant fails to meet the requirements of their bond, including failing to attend court. 

Danni Dineen, after the birth of her daughter. Photo courtesy Danni Dineen.

Dineen had been initially arrested on drug charges and was released on bond in June 2019. But her bond was revoked the next year after she failed a drug test, left a treatment center early and didn’t keep her probation officer informed of her current address. She went back to Eastern Regional Jail for 124 days until she was eventually released on a $500 bond.

A bill under consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee could lead to defendants like Dineen spending less time in the state’s overcrowded and dangerous regional jails while cutting down on the cost of incarceration in the state.

The bill, SB 633, would require anyone arrested on a capias warrant to be granted a hearing within three days where a judge would make a decision on bond. It would also lay out a number of conditions for how defendants must receive notice of future court appearances.

The goal is to reduce pretrial detention, which can have a significant financial and personal impact.

“I don’t know if I will ever recover from the mental and emotional damage I suffered as a result of that capias,” Dineen said.

She gave birth to her daughter, Klarity, at 36 weeks, after numerous complications, including at one point fainting and waking up with a bloody face in her jail cell.

“I have never had such a horrific time in my life as I did when I was pregnant at Eastern Regional Jail,“ she said.

The bill also could reduce the number of people who die in West Virginia jails, the majority of whom are awaiting trial. 

Last year, we detailed how a Beckley man died in jail after being held without bond for 81 days on littering charges and for missing a court date for credit card fraud. His mother said at the time that she tried to post his bond but wasn’t able to because of the capias. 

The bill was discussed favorably by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, but lawmakers didn’t vote on it because they were uncertain about the effect of numerous amendments. Committee members said they plan to consider a revised version in the next few days; they’ll need to advance it by Sunday for it to have a chance to make it through the House before Crossover Day. –Dan Lawton

DHHR split goes to Gov. Justice

HB 2006, a bill to split the Department of Health and Human Resources into three agencies, passed the Senate 33-1 on Wednesday. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

West Virginia’s largest state agency is on the brink of a major split after lawmakers have repeatedly said the department is too big and unwieldy to be under one person.

On Wednesday, the West Virginia Senate passed HB 2006, sending it to the desk of Gov. Jim Justice. The bill would split the Department of Health and Human Resources into three agencies.

The governor will have five days to either sign or veto the bill before it would become law without his signature. 

“When it makes its way to my desk and everything, I will approach it in a very positive way because truly there’s lots and lots and lots of folks with a lot of opinions.” Justice said during a press briefing Wednesday. “We want to continue to try to make things better. And absolutely I’ll look very open-minded and in a real positive way because that’s all I want to do is just make it better.”

After last year’s session ended and lawmakers returned home, Justice vetoed a different bill that would’ve split the massive agency into two separate agencies. 

He then commissioned an audit that suggested keeping the agency together. Lawmakers rejected the audit as a failure lacking “any substantive plan for changing the organization.”

Overriding a veto would require only a simple majority in each chamber and the bill passed 33-1 in the Senate and 95-3 in the House. Regardless of whether DHHR is broken up, it faces fundamental issues with data collection, staffing and funding that have existed for years. —Duncan Slade

Read more: As DHHR might be split into three, how was the agency intended to work?

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.

Dan Lawton is the economic justice reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He previously worked as a reporter in Northern California and New Orleans, covering criminal justice, government and high-profile...

Duncan Slade is Mountain State Spotlight's Deputy Managing Editor