CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A West Virginia legislative committee on Wednesday advanced a bill that would codify the right of residents to challenge government regulations that interfere with their religious beliefs.
The House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill to the full House of Delegates. A public hearing on the bill is scheduled Friday in the House chambers.
The legislation would require a government entity to have a compelling reason to burden someone’s constitutional right to freedom of religion and to meet its goals in the least restrictive way possible. Lawmakers failed to pass a similar bill in 2016.
Several Republican committee members said the bill has good intentions. Del. Chris Pritt of Kanawha County said the bill would make West Virginia attractive to economic development.
“There could be businesses out there that could look at this law and say, that’s the kind of place we want to move to, a place that protects religious minorities, that respects religion,” Pratt said.
Opponents fear the bill would allow businesses to challenge city ordinances prohibiting discrimination in housing or employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Democratic Delegate Evan Hansen of Monongalia County said he had multiple concerns about the bill, including how it would treat religious minorities, patients whose doctors or pharmacists have certain religious beliefs, and foster children in the homes of same-sex couples.
The Rev. Kay Albright of Charleston, a member of the West Virginia Coalition against Domestic Violence, said the coalition opposes the bill. She read a statement from the coalition saying that “religious choices should not come at the cost of others’ lives and safety.”
“While this bill proposes religious freedoms, its overarching impact can restrict and oppress rights of historically marginalized communities. Such oppression can lead to violence and permit discriminatory practices to go unquestioned, making communities unsafe and unwelcoming,” Albright said.
At least 23 other states have religious freedom restoration acts. The laws are similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, which allows federal regulations that interfere with religious beliefs to be challenged.