Fairness West Virginia, an advocacy group for the state’s LGBTQ+ population, held a panel for the press Tuesday morning to discuss its proposed ‘Fairness Act’ for the 2020 legislative session.
If passed, the bill would prohibit discrimination that’s based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Panelists included religious and business leaders who favor such legislation. They described a new generation entering the workforce that’s more diverse than the last, which wants employers who appreciate that fact by implementing inclusive policies.
Fairness West Virginia executive director, Andrew Schneider, said passing a law that makes discrimination illegal for all people could help attract and retain residents.
“Passing this law is the right thing to do for our state,” Schneider said Tuesday. “It’s good for business, it’s good for the economy, and it’s the only way we should treat our LGBTQ friends, neighbors and community members.”
Schneider’s group has supported several bills with similar objectives at the state level, but the Legislature has yet to pass any of these bills into law.
Lawmakers Danielle Walker from the House of Delegates and Mitch Carmichael from the Senate were present for the discussion.
Carmichael, who serves as Senate president, told the panelists he adamantly opposes all forms of discrimination as a principle of his faith, but he couldn’t guarantee the bill will have any success in the 2020 session.
He warned there might be a need for some amendments, without specifying which changes the bill might need.
“This may not be the right bill, it may not be the right time,” Carmichael said. “It may not be in the perfect structure. And we need to find that out.”
The West Virginia Human Rights Act already provides “all of its citizens’ equal opportunity for employment”, public accommodations and housing, regardless of things like race, religion and age.
But the state’s laws for equal opportunity don’t mention “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as characteristics people shouldn’t discriminate against.
Del. Jim Butler, a Republican in Mason County who plans to run against Carmichael in the upcoming primary, said in a press release Monday including the two items would “set up a circumstance where people have special protections rather than equality.”
Butler — who did not respond to a request for comment before this article’s publication — also cited concerns he had for members of West Virginia’s business and religious community.
He mentioned the bill could have negative consequences for “employers, people who rent or sell homes, or anyone else who may be accused of being politically incorrect.”
Danielle Stewart, a transgender woman from Beckley, called opponents like Butler a “vocal minority.”
Stewart said she has been all over the state raising awareness for trans people. She often checks out local business, where she says interactions are typically positive.
“There’s no issues with bathrooms, there’s no issues with getting served food, there's no issues with shopping,” she said. “It’s really a vocal minority that's fighting against this. And they’re fighting against this not because of religion, not because of right and wrong, but because they want to maintain control.”
Stewart chairs the Beckley Human Rights Commission, which helps the city ensure equal opportunity to employment, housing and public accommodations. Earlier this year, the Beckley City Council voted to pass an ordinance that ensured equal opportunity to all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Beckley is really the center of southern West Virginia,” she said. “We’re really hoping that other municipalities will take up nondiscrimination ordinances, in addition to what we hope that our state Legislature takes up.”
Fairness West Virginia reports there are 12 other local governments in West Virginia that have passed similar ordinances that prohibit discrimination against members of the LGBTQ+ community.