Non-discrimination bill won't pass WV Legislature - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Non-discrimination bill won't pass WV Legislature

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A bill that would forbid the discrimination of people based on sexual orientation will not pass the Legislature this session.

That's because Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, asked that House Bill 2856 be removed from the House Energy, Industry & Labor/Economic Development and Small Business Committee's agenda for the March 27 meeting. Skinner, the first openly gay lawmaker in the West Virginia Legislature, said in a House floor speech that amendments offered would have watered down the bill, otherwise known as the Employment and Housing Non-Discrimination Act.

"I believe if run today, the bill would have been amended and watered down to such an extent that the bill would not have offered all the protections for the over 57,000 lesbian, gay, transgendered and bisexual West Virginians," Skinner said in his speech. "I believe the wisest course of action today is to delay it in the house for another day."

Skinner was obviously upset and emotional as he talked about the two cases currently being heard in the United States Supreme Court — the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage in California.

In arguments earlier this week, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned attorney Charles Cooper who is defending California's gay marriage ban. She asked him if, outside of the marriage context, there is any rationale in denying homosexuals jobs or benefits because of their sexual orientation. Cooper answered, "No, your honor, I cannot."

EHNDA, which Skinner introduced earlier this month, would amend current state code relating to unlawful discriminatory practices, prohibit discrimination based upon age or sexual orientation and define sexual orientation. The bill was championed by Fairness West Virginia, which Skinner founded.

According to a news release from Fairness West Virginia, members of the group are disappointed the bill failed, but they understand why.

"Today, House Bill 2856, the Employment and Housing Non-Discrimination Act, or EHNDA, has come to an impasse," members said in a March 27 news release. "At the onset of this campaign to secure for West Virginia's LGBT community the same opportunities to find and keep a job or a home as everyone else, Fairness made a pact with each person in the LGBT community that we would not be divided by our opponents. We agreed on one main principle: To stand together, shoulder to shoulder—gays and lesbians with bisexuals and transgenders — and fight with all we could muster to achieve dignity and respect for everyone in our community. Everyone. Every. Last. One."

And although the same bill was introduced in the Senate, EHNDA supporter Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said there's not much hope the Senate version will pass the full Legislature, either.

"Even if we pass the senate version, if they're not inclined to take it up, it's the last two weeks," Kessler said. "There's less than a week before crossover day, and it's just not likely. I'm disappointed. I think, again, it sends a horrible message to the rest of the nation. In a state that's desperate to attract qualified, educated, ambitious work force we're setting up barriers and saying you're not welcome in our state if you're gay, or based on sexual orientation you could be fired, could lose your job."

Kessler pointed out the conversation regarding the rights of homosexuals across the country is changing. In light of the Supreme Court cases and last year's repeal of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, the failure of EHNDA tells the nation West Virginia is intolerant.

"Just this week we had debated in the highest court in our land, the United States Supreme Court, the issue of whether or not gay marriage will be permitted," Kessler said. "I find it ironic while they're over there arguing over whether folks can be entitled to the definition of marriage, in West Virginia you're not even entitled to work. The military has repealed Don't Ask Don't Tell … so you can serve your country, defend your country and it may well be within a few short months that the Boy Scouts of America may well reconsider their discrimination policy on sexual orientation, may well be very ironic the crown jewel of our state, they're building a national and international refuge for scouting. ... They could pass a non-discriminatory policy for the Boy Scouts while we can still fire those who work there. To me, I think that just sends a horrible message of intolerance and bias in our state."

Many corporations doing business in West Virginia already have non-discriminatory policies, and 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have implemented similar policies.

"Why do they have those policies? Why? It's good for business," Skinner said on the House floor.

"Should we run this place like a fortune 500 company? Should we try?" Skinner added. "Unfortunately, I know there are many people in this chamber who support the bill, but they would not vote for it. I want to say to those folks who are co-sponsors and those who have not hesitated to support the bill, thank you for being leaders. To those of you who support the bill, but feel you cannot vote for it, it is not my job to soothe your conscious. I will not give up on you, but I want you to explain to your children, your grand children, your brothers and sisters and friends, why you did not do so.

"Each of us must search our souls for where we stand," he continued. "For those who know what he right thing is, but cannot vote, please tell me why gay people should be discriminated against in this state. For those of you who side with fear, intolerance and discrimination, I will pray for you. Please answer the question Justice Sotomayor asked—is there a rational reason to discriminate against gay people?"