West Virginia House approves religious exemptions bill

Alex Brandon, AP

Alex Brandon, AP

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Amid growing opposition from the business community, West Virginia‘s Republican-led House of Delegates cleared a bill Thursday that proponents say would ensure freedom of religious expression and opponents say would sanction discrimination.

In a 72-26 vote, delegates approved the measure that would let people cite religious objections to state actions in certain court proceedings.

The bill resembles laws in 21 states that are largely modeled off existing federal law. However, newer laws have garnered attention after the Supreme Court ruled to legalize gay marriage.

The most high-profile example has been Indiana, which may have lost out on $60 million from groups that decided not to hold conventions in Indianapolis because of a similar law, according to the tourism group Visit Indy.

On Thursday, more than a dozen Democrats voted with the Republican majority, while a handful of Republicans opposed it.

The proposal moves to the Senate, where Republican Senate President Bill Cole hasn’t taken a position on it.

“That’s going to be a tough one,” Cole told reporters Monday. “There’s no question.”

Proponents said the bill protects freedoms to express religious beliefs, unless there’s a compelling state interest to restrict them. They said it essentially doesn’t change how the law currently works in West Virginia and doesn’t go as far as the Indiana law did.

“This bill will, if not eliminate, at least reduce the chilling effect of the way our society has become so paranoid about expressing the devotion that we feel to what is the foundation of this nation, and that’s religion,” said Del. John Shott, R-Mercer.

Opponents say the bill sanctions discrimination — particularly targeting gay marriage — and could put seven cities’ nondiscrimination policies for gay and transgender people in jeopardy. The state doesn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity in its employment and housing protections, so some cities have instituted their own.

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