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Religious groups in W.Va. back ‘Fairness Act’

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — More than 100 members of the clergy from multiple faiths Monday came out in support of adding sexual orientation and gender identity to West Virginia’s housing and employment non-discrimination statutes, though legislative leaders remain wary of the proposed legislation.

Fairness West Virginia, a civil rights rights organization for the LGBTQ community, announced support for the Fairness Act from the religious community Monday at a press conference at the Capitol.

The Fairness Act would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state Human Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. The goal is to prohibit discrimination of LGBTQ and transgender citizens in housing and employment.

“It is a simple bipartisan bill that provides a common sense solution for the discrimination too many LGBTQ people face,” said Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia. “It would ensure that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, are free to wake up every day free from the fear of discrimination. We all deserve to work hard to support ourselves and our families. We all deserve to feel safe knowing we can’t be kicked out of our homes because of who we are or who we love.”

According to Fairness West Virginia, 106 members of the clergy representing Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations in West Virginia support the Fairness Act. Several clergy leaders were on hand Monday for the announcement.

The Rev. James Wicker with the Cross of Grace Lutheran Church in Hurricane said the issue is close to his heart because his brother and son are gay.

“The differences between human beings are no reason for us to exclude anyone from basic and equal human rights such as housing, employment, or access to public spaces,” Wicker said. “The fact of the matter is discrimination against another for whatever reason is not a biblical principle, nor is it condoned by Jesus. Quite the contrary. I see this as an opportunity to live out and to practice our faith, to exhibit virtues of compassion, empathy and love.”

The Rev. Jennifer Williams with the United Methodist Church in Morgantown related the story of two men who left the state to take jobs in the education and health care fields, afraid that their sexual orientation could be used to deny them employment.

“In part, they left West Virginia because they couldn’t plan a stable future here, not because of their fields of employment, because they’re certainly high schools and hospitals in West Virginia, but because they weren’t certain that they’d be protected against discrimination and the basics of their lives, housing and employment,” Williams said. “Without the guarantee of those foundational elements of an adult life, how could they build a future here?”

Twelve cities in West Virginia have an LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance with four other cities adopting resolutions in support. Polling in 2017 showed 63 percent of West Virginians support adding protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. Nationally, 20 states have comprehensive non-discrimination written into their laws and 91 percent of Fortune 500 companies already have provisions to protect the LGBTQ community.

Discrimination the LGBTQ community is similar to the persecution Jews have faced for thousands of years, Rabbi Victor Urecki of the B’nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston said.

“My people lovingly stand shoulder to shoulder with the LGBTQ community and advocating for their full civil rights and protections,” Urecki said. “They’re experiences are our experiences. Their stories are our stories. What they are going through is what we have gone through. Allowing or encouraging discrimination toward individuals because of who they love or how they identify isn’t just harmful, it’s not only just fundamentally immoral, but it’s not what West Virginia is supposed to be.”

Fairness West Virginia unveiled the Fairness Act on Dec. 3 during a panel discussion that included Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson. Carmichael is known for a floor speech in 2016 speaking against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill that LGBTQ advocates said would allow discrimination.

While Carmichael has said he does not support discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Carmichael has not expressed support for the Fairness Act as it currently stands. Carmichael on Dec. 19 also organized a panel of Baptist pastors and business owners who unanimously oppose the Fairness Act.

At the West Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Lookahead on Friday, Carmichael and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, both said they oppose discrimination, but would not express support for Fairness West Virginia’s current proposal.

“I have not come out in support of this legislation. I just want to clarify that,” Carmichael said. “I am evaluating various options as it relates to ensuring that we adhere to a non-discrimination policy in the State of West Virginia.”

“I think we have to be very careful about creating protective classes if that is what the bill does,” Hanshaw said. “If that is the goal we’re out to achieve, then we need to make sure there’s not unintended consequences.”

Schneider said he is willing to work with lawmakers to see what can be done to make the bill more acceptable, though he would prefer to keep the current language. Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, plans to be a sponsor on the Senate side and Schneider said he believes they have the votes on the House side to pass the bill.

“We think that we have the votes to pass this in both chambers. We just need to convince leadership to support the language,” Schneider said. “They do refer to the legislative process as a sausage-making process, so it could get complex. At the same time, we are going to fight for the language that exists in the current bill.”

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