It was a familiar scene as dozens of West Virginians filed into the House Chamber and waited to speak at a late afternoon public hearing.
Amid an onslaught of legislation that would roll back the rights and protections for LGBTQ West Virginians, this was the second public hearing just this month in which people came to address one of these bills and speak passionately against it.
They outnumbered supporters of the bill almost three-to-one on Friday, but it seemed to do little to sway the roughly 20 lawmakers who showed up.
“I had so much more to say, but honestly there’s no point,” Dottie Sayre, one of the bill’s opponents, told lawmakers. “Whether you pass it or not, the damage is done.”
For many in the LGBTQ community, it’s been one bill after another.
More than a dozen bills introduced this session that would, among other things, make certain drag shows illegal, make it harder to access gender-affirming care or block local non-discrimination laws and conversion therapy bans. Other bills to ban gender affirming care for minors and make it easier for residents to force referendums on local non-discrimination ordinances have been taken up by lawmakers and are moving through the legislative process.
Only a small handful of these bills seem poised to advance and potentially become law. But with Republicans holding large enough super majorities in both chambers to suspend certain parliamentary rules, no bill is truly dead until the final gavel.
Take HB 3042, a bill that sat dormant after being introduced for a month, but passed committee earlier this week. The bill would allow West Virginians to sue over state or local laws that substantially impact their ability to practice their religion freely without a compelling government interest. A hypothetical that emerged in committee discussions among lawmakers was how the bill could be used to protect Muslims, or members of another religion that ritually pray at certain times, from loitering laws.
During Friday’s late afternoon public hearing, critics said the bill would legalize discrimination of LGBTQ West Virginians under the guise of religious freedom.
“We’re just trying to live without worrying whether we’re going to be denied services or healthcare or employment,” said Mattie Connely, who came to the Capitol to speak against the bill.
In several other states, similar laws have been used by companies to deny services or components of employee health care to LGBTQ individuals. Supporters of the bill said that the protection of religious freedom is not the same as a license to discriminate.
“It seems like there is some confusion about the bill,” said Bo Burgess, a pastor from Mason County. “It sounds like myself and most of those that are in opposition agree. I’ve heard you say so many times that you are in favor of the First Amendment.”
But West Virginians speaking against the bill were skeptical of the Legislature’s intention. After a similar bill passed the House of Delegates in 2016 over many of the same objections, it was voted down in the state Senate after the Democratic minority, and some Republicans, amended it to include explicit protections for LGBTQ people.
And on Saturday, delegates advanced the bill and could pass it on Monday. A pending amendment from Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, would clarify that the law could not be used to challenge state or local non-discrimination laws.
But Del. Jonathan Pinson, R-Mason, the bill’s sponsor, said Friday that he is against that idea and that criticisms of the bill being used in that way have been misplaced.
“I understand there are some folks that have those concerns, but the truth of the matter is that those concerns aren’t based in fact,” he said, adding that instances where similar religious freedom laws have been used to discriminate are the “minority” of cases.
Like the religious freedom bill, many other anti-LGBTQ bills introduced this session are familiar. Most are recurring proposals introduced by a small handful of lawmakers year after year, or modeled after similar legislation in other states.
Some of the bills that have yet to move would strip towns of local non-discrimination ordinances or bans on conversion therapy, despite the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association calling the practice harmful.
Another bill that has already passed one committee in the House, however, would allow a small minority of residents to force referendum votes on any law. On its face, like the religious freedom bill, the bill doesn’t mention LGBTQ West Virginians, but has long been sought by anti-LGBTQ groups like West Virginia Family Policy Council. In West Virginia cities that already allow the practice, ballot questions have historically been used to target non-discrimination laws.
Medical associations, civil rights and LGBTQ advocacy groups and members of the business community have publicly voiced opposition to such laws. At Friday’s public hearing, multiple faith leaders said they opposed the bill as well.
One speaker said they had “no delusions of swaying” the lawmakers who attended the hearing. Another said even the introduction of such legislation was sending the message that they “should leave the state.”
At the end of the hearing, Pinson said nothing he heard changed his mind.
“What we find in the hearing is both the far left and the right saying the bill is going to do things that, quite frankly, the bill doesn’t speak to,” he said.
But Kasha Snyder-McDonald, a Charleston resident, said she has heard that kind of language before.
“They always say ‘we’re not going to do this,’” she said, pointing to the many times lawmakers said they wouldn’t ban abortion, even as they made care harder to access while Roe v. Wade still stood.
Snyder-McDonald estimated she’s been to around five public hearings in the last two years. But she isn’t tired.
“I’m gonna keep coming,” she said. “Anything that has to do with LGBTQ+ rights, I’m here for.”
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