The floor of the West Virginia House erupted Thursday as delegates discussed Wednesday’s explosive meeting of the Committee on Governmental Organization. In that committee, members discussed an amendment to House Bill 2708. The amendment would have prevented adding protected classes -- such as members of the LGBTQ community, who are not currently stipulated in state code -- when making changes to city regulations and requirements.
The proposed amendment was downed by the committee Wednesday on a 10-12 vote, but sparked more conversation on the House floor about protecting civil rights for those in the LGBTQ community. The amendment would have nullified anti-discrimination ordinances that have been passed around the state in recent years.
Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, stood on the floor and noted that in Wednesday’s committee, Democrats were called socialists during the discussion of the amendment. Hansen said as a business owner, civil rights protections for LGBTQ communities are crucial to attract new businesses to the state.
“I just cannot even believe that this is something that we're talking about here at the Legislature -- undoing these non-discrimination ordinances instead of taking proactive steps to pass a non-discrimination ordinance for the entire state,” Hansen said. “I just don't think it's fair that somebody could lose their job because their boss finds out that they're gay. And I don't think it's fair that somebody could be kicked out of their apartment because they choose to come out of the closet. To me, it's a fairness issue and -- it's not just that -- it's an economic development issue.”
Del. Tom Bibby, R-Berkeley, who supported the amendment to House Bill 2708, argued it wasn’t about discrimination but rather keeping laws consistent across various levels of government.
“Yesterday, in Government Organization that discussion had nothing to do with anti-discrimination. It was pure and simple. We were trying to put in an amendment that we would not create any protected class that did not already exist under federal and state law pure and simple. There's nothing anti-discriminatory about it,” Bibby said.
With the discussion focused on civil rights for those in the LGBTQ community, Del. Sean Fluharty, D-Ohio, moved to discharge another measure -- House Bill 2733 -- from the House Industry and Labor Committee and bring it to the floor. That bill seeks to add sexual orientation and gender identity to West Virginia’s Human Rights Act.
Fluharty’s discharge motion on House Bill 2733 was tabled on a 58-40 party line vote, with Republicans stopping the measure from coming to the floor.
Del. Sammie Brown, D-Jefferson, took aim at Del. Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, for his comments in Wednesday’s committee meeting. Porterfield had supported the committee’s amendment to House Bill 2708 that effectively would have forbade additional protected classes and also spoke against what he called attacks on “religious freedom.”
“I rise because it seems that we have a crisis of character in this chamber. I will also agree with the gentleman from the 51st [Hansen] and the gentleman from the 3rd [Fluharty] where we did hear these comments that actually were very much bigoted,” Brown said. “As someone who fought for those non-discrimination ordinances in the Eastern Panhandle -- to my colleague in the 62nd [Bibby] -- I will tell you to resend those. It's absolutely regressive.”
Del. Bibby stood up to again reiterate his position that the amendment was not intended to discriminate.
“If you look at the amendment on its text. It was to make sure that no city, no county could make up a protected class that was not already part of federal and state law. Pure and simple. The rest of it has nothing to do with it. It was all pure discussion. Remember we are -- and we should be -- a body of laws, not of men,” Bibby said.
Del. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, took issue with language in the committee that he said lacked decorum. He also said that the amendment offered in Wednesday’s committee would have done nothing but drive West Virginia in the wrong direction.
“It's shameful. It's absolutely shameful that we got into such a heated debate over an issue that our children can understand why we fight about. I got two kids, 34 and 35. The Minority Leader and I were having this discussion this morning. [Young people] look at us. They really want to move West Virginia forward,” Caputo said. “But you want to tell someone you can't protect them because of who they love. I'll call a big BS on that. If I would have been out on the steps it wouldn't have been a BS -- it would have been something else because that's what it is. It’s hate.”
Del. Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, stated that one of her sons is gay and would not have been comfortable in Wednesday’s meeting of the Government Organization Committee. She continued on in a floor speech to stretch the discussion on civil rights for the LGBTQ community to discrimination of any kind. Walker advocated for West Virginians to see one another beyond their skin color, gender or sexual orientation.
“When I speak to someone and they say, ‘What do you prefer? Black? African American?’ Why can I just not be a person? Why can I just be a human being? Why can I just be a mother? Why can't I just be a delegate? Why can I not just be your equal?” Walker asked. “You look at me and you see what I am: an American proud I exemplify one law, whether you like it or not, you're either gonna love me Are you gonna love to hate me? But it's still love.”
Discussion over civil rights for those in the LGBTQ community came on the same day as "All Kinds Welcome" lobby day at the Capitol.
Fairness West Virginia, the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, West Virginia Free and Planned Parenthood Votes South Atlantic led the effort of more than 15 social justice organizations that seek to promote and uphold civil liberties in West Virginia.