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Fairness Act could already be dead in water

CHARLESTON — A much-anticipated bill to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s housing and employment non-discrimination statutes was introduced in the state Senate Friday, but the bill could already be in trouble.

Senate Bill 270 – creating the Fairness Act – was introduced Friday with bipartisan co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke; and senators Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, and Michael Woelfel, D-Cabell. The bill was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Fairness Act would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state Human Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. If passed, it would prohibit hiring or firing employees or denying applicants housing based on their partners or how they choose to identify.

However, a statement released by more than a dozen pastors and church members from the 4th District – represented by Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson – said that Carmichael told them in a Jan. 6 meeting that the Fairness Act won’t make it out of the Senate. The 4th District covers Jackson and Putnam counties, as well as parts of Roane and Mason counties.

“At the conclusion of the meeting, Senator Carmichael confirmed to the pastors and church members that ‘I am against this legislation and will not run it in the senate,'” said Pastor Bo Burgess of Jordan Baptist Church in Gallipolis Ferry. “We would like to thank the senator for his decision on this matter.”

Carmichael had been part of a panel discussion put on by LGBTQ civil rights group Fairness West Virginia Dec. 2 as part of their roll out of the Fairness Act. A version of the Fairness Act, also known as the Employment and Housing Non-Discrimination Act, has been introduced in the Legislature every year since at least 1993 and passed the Senate in 2008 before being blocked in the House of Delegates.

Carmichael’s participation in the Fairness Act announcement was interpreted by many as support for the legislation. Carmichael made headlines in 2016 when he spoke against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill interpreted by advocacy groups as anti-LGBTQ. Carmichael’s emotional speech, as well as an amendment added to the bill prohibiting its use for discriminatory purposes, helped end the bill.

Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, said he was disappointed that Carmichael was dismissing the bill before it was even introduced in the Senate.

“The Senate President is right about one thing, though. Now is not the right time to pass the Fairness Act. The right time has already passed,” Schneider said. “The right time was decades ago when advocates first asked their government to protect them from legal discrimination. For too long, our leaders have cowered away from doing what’s right.

Since Dec. 2, Carmichael has been slowly backing away from the bill. He organized a Dec. panel of Baptist pastors and business leaders from the 4th District who were united in their opposition to the Fairness Act. Speaking at the West Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Lookahead Jan. 3, Carmichael said he was against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity but would not commit to supporting the Fairness Act.

“I have not come out in support of this legislation. I just want to clarify that,” Carmichael said. “I am evaluating various options as it relates to ensuring that we adhere to a non-discrimination policy in the State of West Virginia.”

Fairness West Virginia held a press conference Jan. 6 announcing support for the Fairness Act by more than 100 clergy members representing multiple faiths and denominations. Burgess, in Friday’s press release, said the clergy that met with Carmichael Monday did not agree with their religious brothers and sisters.

“We disagree with the other group of (clergies) who support the LGBTQ agenda,” Burgess said. “We believe that most born-again, Bible-believing Christians and churches in our state are against this type of legislation. The forcing of the LGBTQ lifestyle by the government is wrong constitutionally and an abomination before God and His Word.”

When asked about Carmichael’s wavering support, Fairness West Virginia Executive Director Andrew Schneider said he wasn’t discouraged.

“The truth is, a majority of our lawmakers want to see this bill passed,” Schneider said. “Our community has waited and waited and waited for some imaginary ‘right time.’ We can’t wait any longer. It should not be legal to fire or evict LGBTQ people because of who they are or who they love. We’re extremely disappointed that Sen. Carmichael is bowing to a small, vocal minority. He is ignoring the six in 10 West Virginians who say these nondiscrimination protections are needed.”

House and Senate Democrats held a press conference Thursday announcing their legislative agenda for the 60-day legislative session, with the Fairness Acting being one the planks of that platform.

“I think the votes are in the Senate to pass the bill,” said Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion.

“I’ll put it very bluntly: it’s shameful that we in the state haven’t passed that kind of bill yet,” said House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison. “Do we want to be a state that attracts the next generation of younger kids who stay here and come back here? I can assure you…they could care less if there are gay men and women among us. They are productive members of society and it’s just sad that we are unwilling to pass any legislation that would protect those people who we know are targets of bad behavior.”

Carmichael was unavailable for comment for this story.