W.Va. House passes Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Published: Feb. 11, 2016 at 2:32 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- A bill that would give people the opportunity to cite religious objections to state actions has passed the West Virginia House of Delegates and is now headed to the Senate.

The House of Delegates passed House Bill 4012, which is the West Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act, by a vote of 72-26.

The bill protects freedoms to express religious beliefs unless there's a compelling state interest to restrict them.

The bill models after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and laws that have been adopted by more than 20 other states.

House Majority Whip John O'Neal says "Religious freedom is a basic human right, and a vital Constitutional right, that deserves protection under West Virginia law. "Every West Virginian should be free to live and work according to their faith without fear of being punished by the government."

Proponents says WV RFRA re-establishes a balancing test for resolving religious freedom cases that was removed by federal court rulings.

"This bill will give state courts a balancing test that guides judges in considering cases alleging that the action of a governmental body has violated a citizen's deeply held religious belief." said House Speaker Tim Armstead.

Under the bill, if a person attempts to defend in court their religious beliefs against government action, a judge would use the following questions to evaluate the merits of the case:

1.) Does a person have a sincerely held religious belief?

2.) Has that belief been substantially burdened by government?

3.) Does the government have a compelling interest to substantially burden that belief?

4.) Has government exhausted all other means to achieve its goals without infringing on that belief, and is the action the least restrictive of that citizen’s religious beliefs?

The WV RFRA is designed to be defensive in nature and only applies to government infringement on religious freedom.

"No West Virginian should be left defenseless when a government attempts to force them into violating their deeply-held beliefs." said House Majority Leader Daryl Cowels, R-Morgan.

Opponents say the bill would allow for discrimination, particularly targeting gay marriage.

Reports say Indiana might have lost $60 million when groups opted against conventions in Indianapolis because of a similar law.

Citing Indiana, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said he'd have to consider a veto if the bill makes it to his desk.

Jennifer Meinig, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia released the following statement:

“Religious freedom is a fundamental right, but it cannot be used as a basis to discriminate against others. This legislation turns personal religious freedom on its head, making it a tool of oppression. Under this law, a landlord who believes that a man should be the head of a household could refuse to rent to a single mother. A hotel owner who objects to cohabitation out of marriage could refuse to provide a room to an unmarried couple.”

Andrew Schneider, Executive Director of Fairness West Virginia released the following statement:

“We are extremely disappointed that the WV House of Delegates would advance legislation that seeks to legalize discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. This legislation may very well have a devastating effect on our economy and our reputation as a welcoming tourism destination. We urge Senate President Bill Cole and other fair-minded, pro-business leaders in the Senate to kill this legislation or vote it down before it's too late.”