Divided West Virginia Senate passes discrimination bill

Posted on 16 Mar 2009 at 11:08am
By Tim Breen Associated Press

Opponents say law could ‘destoy employment at will’ in the state

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A year ago, the West Virginia Senate unanimously passed a bill banning discrimination in housing or employment based on sexual orientation, but the numbers were much different Friday, March 13.

A new version of the bill — which died in the House of Delegates last year — passed, but this time it was out of a divided Senate, with members delivering impassioned speeches on the floor.

"I will not shrink from, nor be silenced by, the political attacks of any group who preaches discrimination over dignity, intolerance over fairness, or fear over hope," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall.

Sexual orientation has simmered in the background of the session, with the Family Policy Council of West Virginia pushing for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. A resolution supporting such an amendment was introduced in the Senate a week ago.

Opponents of the anti-discrimination bill, though, didn’t use that argument in criticizing the proposal. They said it was simply muddled, vague legislation that could unleash a wave of lawsuits along with other unintended consequences.

Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth, R-Mercer, noted the bill’s language in defining sexual orientation includes gays along with heterosexuals and people who identify as bisexual.

"Everybody’s part of the protected class, when you put all the three categories together here under sexual orientation," he said. "Heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual. That includes everyone."

Caruth argued that under the bill’s language, a heterosexual fired from a job could theoretically sue on the basis of discrimination over sexual orientation.

"By passing this bill, we would literally destroy employment at will in the state of West Virginia," he said.

Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said other anti-discrimination protections already part of state law, such as race and gender, are immediately apparent. Sexual identity is more subjective, he said, and it could cause problems in how the bill is applied.

"It raises all sorts of unanswered questions," he said.

Sen. Brooks McCabe, though, argued the bill is essentially an economic development measure, noting that a number of companies in the state already have similar personnel policies.

"This is not just a nice thing to do, this is a requirement to be successful in the private sector," he said.

Ultimately, seven Republicans and three Democrats voted against the measure, which now goes to the House of Delegates, where it’s likely to have a harder time gaining passage.

Last year, the Senate unanimously approved a measure that advocates like Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, said was even stronger, since the current bill includes exemptions for religious institutions.

But some of those who voted for the measure last year, like Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, said they were misled into thinking it merely squared West Virginia’s law with federal code.

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