West Virginia Governor Signs "Equal Protection for Religion Act" Amid Controversy and Concerns Over Discrimination


West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice attend a discussion in West Virginia on July 8, 2019. Justice signed the "Equal Protection for Religion Act"Photo bySAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice has signed the "Equal Protection for Religion Act," which supporters claim will protect religious freedom but has been labeled a "license to discriminate" by LGBTQ rights advocates. The Republican governor signed the bill on Thursday, which stipulates that the government cannot "substantially burden" someone's constitutional right to freedom of religion unless doing so "is essential to further a compelling governmental interest."

The bill also states that if the government can prove there is a "compelling interest" to restrict that right, officials must demonstrate that religious freedoms are being infringed upon in "the least restrictive means" possible. At least 23 other states have similar religious freedom restoration acts, which are modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Supporters of the bill claim it is meant to protect all people against religious discrimination and is not aimed at any particular group. They have described it as a "judicial test" for courts to apply when people challenge government regulations they believe interfere with their constitutional right to religious freedom.

Before the bill passed the Senate last month, Republican Sen. Amy Grady stated that there had been a lot of misinformation circulating about the measure, adding, "We can't violate somebody's civil rights or human rights." She went on to say that the bill is "not going to harm the people of West Virginia," and that "we shouldn't punish someone for practicing their religion unless there's a very good reason to do so."

However, Democratic Sen. Mike Caputo of Marion County expressed concern that the bill could put nondiscrimination laws or ordinances that protect LGBTQ groups "in jeopardy." House GOP lawmakers also rejected a Democratic-proposed amendment that would have barred the law from being used to discriminate.

The bill also dictates that the proposed law cannot be used as an argument to defend abortion, which was effectively banned by West Virginia lawmakers last year. This provision was included as abortion rights groups are challenging abortion bans in some states by arguing that the bans violate the religious rights of people with different beliefs.

The signing of the bill has sparked controversy among LGBTQ rights advocates who argue that the new law will give businesses and individuals a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people. According to the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ advocacy group, similar laws have been used in other states to deny services to same-sex couples, transgender people, and people living with HIV.

The HRC released a statement condemning the bill, saying, "This law is a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people, plain and simple. It is disappointing that Governor Justice would choose to sign a bill that opens the door to discrimination in the name of religion."

In response to the signing of the bill, the ACLU of West Virginia issued a statement expressing concern that the new law could lead to discrimination against marginalized groups. Jennifer Meinig, the executive director of the ACLU of West Virginia, stated, "We are deeply disappointed that Governor Justice has chosen to sign this discriminatory and unnecessary law, which could cause significant harm to West Virginians who are already marginalized and vulnerable."

Meinig went on to say, "This law does nothing to protect religious freedom, but instead opens the door to discrimination against LGBTQ people, women seeking reproductive healthcare, and other marginalized groups. The ACLU of West Virginia is committed to fighting against discrimination in all its forms and will continue to advocate for the rights of all West Virginians."

The signing of the bill comes as protests are being held at the state Capitol against a different bill that would outlaw certain health care for transgender minors, including hormone therapy. LGBTQ rights advocates have also been calling for the passage of the Fairness Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, and public accommodations.

Overall, the signing of the "Equal Protection for Religion Act" has sparked controversy among the residents of West Virginia and the LGBTQ community across the country.

On one side of the debate, supporters of the bill argue that it is necessary to protect religious freedom and prevent government overreach. The bill's sponsor, Republican Senator Eric Tarr, said that the legislation was designed to ensure that "religious liberties are not trampled on by the government," and that it would "give people the ability to defend their faith against unnecessary burdens."

However, opponents of the bill, including LGBTQ rights advocates and civil liberties groups, argue that the "Equal Protection for Religion Act" is little more than a "license to discriminate" against marginalized groups. They fear that the law could be used to justify discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or other protected characteristics.

"Today, Governor Justice signed into law a bill that will be used as a weapon against LGBTQ West Virginians and other vulnerable groups," said Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, a nonprofit LGBTQ advocacy organization. "This so-called 'religious freedom' bill is a license to discriminate against anyone who does not meet a certain set of religious criteria."

Critics of the bill also argue that it could have unintended consequences, such as undermining existing nondiscrimination laws or allowing businesses and individuals to use religion as an excuse to flout public health mandates, such as mask mandates or vaccine requirements.

"While this law is sold as protecting religious freedom, its effects will be anything but," said Loree Stark, legal director of the ACLU of West Virginia. "It will create a license to discriminate against many people, including LGBTQ people, women seeking reproductive healthcare, and others."

The signing of the "Equal Protection for Religion Act" comes at a time of heightened political polarization and social unrest in the United States. Many conservative lawmakers and interest groups have championed "religious freedom" as a key issue, while progressive activists and civil rights advocates have fought to expand protections for marginalized communities.

The debate over religious freedom is also playing out in other states, where lawmakers are considering similar bills. In Montana, for example, the state legislature is currently considering a bill that would prohibit state officials from "penalizing or discriminating" against individuals or organizations on the basis of their religious beliefs. The bill has been criticized by LGBTQ rights groups and others as a license to discriminate.

As the fight over religious freedom continues, it remains to be seen how the "Equal Protection for Religion Act" will be implemented in West Virginia and how it will impact the rights of LGBTQ individuals and other marginalized groups in the state. For now, however, the signing of the bill has left many West Virginians and Americans across the country feeling uneasy about the future of civil rights and liberties in the United States.

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