Fireworks in the House Over RFRA Amendments

Feb 10, 2016

Four amendments for House Bill 4012, the West Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act, were debated on the House floor Wednesday morning. The bill creates a judicial test for lawsuits against the state or government entities to ensure the protections of an individual’s “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

House Speaker Tim Armstead addresses the House after his ruling was challenged.
Credit Perry Bennett / West Virginia Legislative Photography

Two of the amendments offered Wednesday by Democratic members of the body were ruled irrelevant and never made it to a vote.

Minority members took issue with House Speaker Tim Armstead’s ruling on the relevancy of one amendment in particular, claiming the speaker has consistently blocked Democratic amendments on the floor this session.

The Speaker, however, took issue with the claim and came down from the podium to address members of the chamber, something not often done in the chamber.

“Yes, we all have very strong feeling and emotions about certain things we debate on this floor,” Armstead said. “Yes, we feel strong that we should be able to have a particular issue brought in front of us. But there are rules to this process that we must follow, and follow those rules whether it’s an issue that we particularly feel passionate about or not.”

An amendment by Democrats Isaac Sponaugle and Mike Pushkin, however, was considered by the body.  Delegate Sponaugle explained the amendment protects local EDNHA ordinances, which prohibit discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

House Judiciary Chair John Shott was against the change saying the intent of the bill is to protect West Virginians from an infringement on their rights by all levels of government, not just the state.

The Democratic amendment was voted down.

A final amendment to the bill, offered by Shott, was adopted that removes an individual’s ability to seek compensatory damages in a lawsuit filed under the proposed law. Those damages are meant to reward someone for the harm they experienced at the hands of the wrongdoer.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act will be up for a final vote in the House Thursday.