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Anti-Muslim Display Gets Tempers Flaring Around W.Va. House; Leads to Resignation, Injury

Perry Bennett
West Virginia Legislative Photography
In this Feb 2017 file photo, Sergeant at Arms Anne Lieberman is seen on the House floor.

Updated March 2, 2019 at 12:17 p.m.


Anti-Muslim sentiments seen just outside of the West Virginia House of Delegates Friday caused an explosive day in and around the chamber, which led to the resignation of a staff member, an injury and possible disciplinary action against a Democratic member.


A display in the rotunda during “WV GOP Day” sparked a day’s worth of controversy in which the chamber’s Sergeant at Arms submitted a letter of resignation. House Republican leaders say the reaction to that display and other comments led also to a doorkeeper being injured when a Democratic member kicked open the doors to the chamber.


The West Virginia Republican Party and other organizations had set up displays as part of the scheduled activities around the Capitol. One group had an exhibit that included a poster depicting a meme with two photos.


The top photo showed planes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001 with the text “‘Never Forget’ - You Said.” Below that photo was a photo of U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, D- Minn and text “I Am Proof - You Have Forgotten.”


Omar, who is shown in the photo wearing a hijab, is the first of two Muslim women to be elected to the U.S. Congress.


The display in question was one of several exhibits on display as part of West Virginia Republican Party Day at the Capitol -- and was directly next to a poster promoting ACT for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as an anti-Muslim hate group. A person standing behind that display was wearing a T-shirt that included that group's logo.


ACT for America said on Twitter they were not responsible for the meme with the Twin Towers and Omar. The group later removed that tweet disassociating themselves from Friday's events at the West Virginia Capitol.

At the beginning of the West Virginia House floor session, Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, stood to condemn the sentiment on the display. Pushkin also noted an interaction between House Democrats and others in the rotunda.

“I expressed my disgust about something like that -- that, really, I believe points out the hatred and a mistrust of somebody because of their religious background,” he said.


Pushkin, who is Jewish, noted other moments in history where hate speech has been directed at members of a religion.


“Maybe it's a little bit personal for me because, you know, I'm also a member of a religious minority who you know in the early ’30s in Germany, you might see a similar poster about a different religion -- and that's one of the many reasons why that bothers me,” Pushkin said.


Republicans who spoke on the floor about the controversy cited the First Amendment right to free speech. Del. Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha, was one of them.


“My issue with what I saw outside has to do with another truly American foundational issue and that's freedom of speech. So, while I may not agree with everything that is out there, I do agree that freedom of speech is something that we have to protect, even if we don't agree with it. Maybe especially when we don't agree with it,” Graves said.


Del. Michael Angelucci, D-Marion, stood on the floor and said that when discussion about the display was taking place in the rotunda, Sergeant at Arms Anne Lieberman called all Muslims “terrorists.”


“That's beyond shameful -- and that's not freedom of speech. That's hate speech and it has no place in this House -- the people's House -- and I am furious,” Angelucci said on the floor.


Del. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, was also bothered by the incident stemming from the inflammatory display in the rotunda. He admitted to kicking open the entrance to the chamber when a doorkeeper held the door shut during the daily prayer and pledge of allegiance.

“We’ve got doorkeepers going nose to nose with members, Sergeant at Arms going nose to nose with members. We have created an anger that I've never witnessed in 23 years in this body and it's sickens me. It absolutely sickens me. But, yeah I, kicked that door open. I’ll own it,” Caputo said. “I did and I said some things that I don't normally say. So, the point should be that we shouldn't do what's going on outside here. Whether it's the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, there's no place for that.”


Del. Tom Bibby, R-Berkeley, also defended the display with the right to free speech but asked that the House move along to continue its proper business of the day.


“Freedom of speech is very dear and near to me. Let's hold it all within the House and, Mr. Speaker, we've got lots to do today. Let's move on,” Bibby said.


But before the House did move along to other business, Pushkin stood again to clarify his position on freedom of speech.


“I would fight for anybody's right in here to say whatever they want, no matter how stupid it is. I believe in the freedom of speech with every ounce of me. I'm a strong supporter of the First Amendment. I would never ask somebody to take something down. I rose to condemn it, and I would hope you would, too,” Pushkin said.


Asked by West Virginia Public Broadcasting about the incident, Lieberman disputed that she called all Muslims terrorists. She declined further comment until meeting with Speaker Hanshaw.


But by Friday afternoon, Lieberman submitted a letter of resignation to the House. It was announced during an evening floor session.


During that short session, Speaker Hanshaw addressed the chamber regarding the day's events. He also said the doorkeeper had been injured in the incident involving Caputo. The extent of the injuries to the doorkeeper are as of yet unknown.


“We can do better. We can be more than what we are today. We have eight more days to do it. But we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to the 1.8 million people who watch us, who believe in us, who sent us here, who expect more of us, to do it. Be what the people sent you here to be,” Hanshaw said.


Following the floor session, members of each party caucused to run through the day’s events and their party’s respective next steps.


Democrats designated Del. Isaac Sponaugle, of Pendleton County, to speak on behalf of the minority party. He said he was not a witness to the incident involving Caputo and the House doorkeeper but acknowledged that other Democrats were.


He said the day’s events had been boiling for weeks, with other hate speech having found its way around the chamber this session.


“We have a diverse caucus and many of our people believe this has festered. It's got to a point that it's intolerable,” Sponaugle said, pointing to controversial earlier remarks made by a Republican member.


Del. Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, sparked controversy earlier this session with inflammatory remarks against the LGBTQ community when he called gay rights groups "terrorists" and likened them to the Ku Klux Klan.


Following that incident, the West Virginia Republican Party denounced Porterfield's comments against the LGBTQ community. However, he was not officially reprimanded by House Republican leaders for those remarks.


The House Rules Committee is set to meet in the Judiciary Committee room at 8 a.m. Saturday, which could indicate a formal attempt of censuring Caputo, although a spokesman for the majority party would not elaborate on any plans.


Sponaugle said Democrats are unsure what, if any, action could be taken against their fellow caucus member.


“I don't know what they're planning on doing. But I will tell you that [if there are any attempts to punish Caputo] it will not go over well with our minority caucus. We think the world of Mike Caputo. We believe he was totally right,” Sponaugle said. “There was a reason the Sergeant at Arms resigned today for trying to keep a member out of the House and for making  anti-Muslim remarks.”


A spokesperson for the Republican majority said Capitol Police are investigating the incident in which the doorkeeper was injured.


Clarification: This story has been updated to better reflect those who were at the display in question.


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