UPDATE | LGBTQ non-discrimination protection legislation in W.Va. another step closer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) –
Sexual orientation is getting closer to becoming a protected class in West Virginia.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael meets with local business and religious leaders about the proposed Fairness Act.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael hosted a hearing on Thursday to get input from religious and business leaders about the Fairness Act. It's a proposed law that would protect LGBTQ people from discrimination.

It is currently legal in West Virginia to fire someone from their job or evict them from their home because of their sexual orientation. Race, religion, gender, age and national origin are currently protected in the state.

"Whenever we see an employee that does everything right but it happens to be discovered that they are gay, and they can be fired for that with no ramifications, that's simply wrong and West Virginians can't stand for that," Charleston business owner Chris Walters said.

There are currently 12 communities across West Virginia that have protections that would be expanded to the entire state under the Fairness Act. Supporters said the policy would help boost business.

"Unfortunately, our talented youth are moving out of state," Walters said. "I have more friends that I went to college with that are not in West Virginia than are still in West Virginia."

"I want to see them come back here," Walters continued. "I want to do everything we can to make them feel welcome."

Opponents of the law said it could open businesses up to more lawsuits and create more problems than it solves.

"I would argue that it would put undue pressure on business owners," said Pastor Jonathan Pinson with Grace Baptist Church. "I do not believe that this type of legislation is going to help West Virginia. I believe that if we were going to look at the vast majority of West Virginians, they are concerned about their religious liberty, and that liberty being infringed upon."

Religious leaders also questioned how someone could prove or enforce their sexuality in a complaint.

Carmichael has not committed to supporting the bill but has said he will not block it from coming up for a vote in the upcoming legislative session. The session begins on Jan. 8, 2020.



ORIGINAL STORY 12/3/19
A meeting Tuesday at the West Virginia Capitol is bringing together leaders from both sides of the political aisle in a push for comprehensive LGBTQ non-discrimination protections.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson County, described the roundtable as “very informative,” although he would not commit to bringing the Fairness Act up for a vote in the Senate.

"This may not be the right bill, this may not be the right time, it may not be in the perfect structure and we need to find that out," Carmichael said. "When you move a society forward, you have to bring everyone along, and we are trying to do that in the best way possible. These are incredibly difficult issues that need education, enlightenment and understanding."

Forty-four politicians across the West Virginia House and Senate have backed the Fairness Act. A version of this legislation has been introduced for multiple years, but leaders say it’s finally gaining traction.

"The votes are there, it's just a matter of making leadership comfortable," Fairness West Virginia Executive director Andrew Schneider said. "Like the Senate president said, we will go through a process where we talk about the language of the bill, and see if we can find language that will make the most number of people comfortable."

Currently in West Virginia, someone can be fired from their job and denied housing or public benefits based on their sexual orientation.

"At a minimum we need to be able to provide employment and housing protections," transgender activist Danielle Stewart said. "Public accommodations, especially for transgender individuals is an issue, and I won't deny that, but really the employment and the housing is what holds the LGBTQ community back.

State leaders say about 60 percent of West Virginians support this type of legislation. Twenty other states have passed comprehensive legislation like the Fairness Act, as there’s no federal protections against this type of discrimination.

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard three cases on LGBTQ employment discrimination issues and rulings are expected in early 2020. That could create the first federal protections on these issues.

Opponents of the Fairness Act say it opens businesses up to frivolous lawsuits for discrimination, Carmichael said. That issue is one of the reasons similar bills have been brought up in recent years but have not been passed through the Senate.

There are currently 12 towns throughout West Virginia with non-discrimination ordinances. That includes Charleston which passed the first ordinance of its type in the state 12 years ago. Only two lawsuits have been filed under these ordinances and both plaintiffs won their case, Schneider said.