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Wheeling Jesuit hosts LGBT panel

WHEELING – Wheeling Jesuit University’s Appalachian Institute hosted a panel discussion concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in West Virginia at the university’s recital hall Thursday evening.

The discussion was the first of the institute’s “Appalachia on the Fringe series,” and featured Andrew Schneider, executive director and lobbyist for civil rights advocacy group Fairness West Virginia. Prior to his work with the organization, Schneider served as executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union in West Virginia and Connecticut.

Schneider said a bill pending in the Legislature, the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, would allow businesses to refuse service to anyone, including LGBT residents, if they feel providing a service is against their religion. According to Scheneider, similar laws passed in Indiana and has cost its state millions of dollars in revenue.

The West Virginia bill, House Bill 4012, has cleared the House of Delegates’ Judiciary Committee and could be voted on by the full House as early as Tuesday.

“People of faith, like myself and yourself, receive more protection than any other group or protected class in this country,” Schneider said. “The concept that when you’re in the marketplace engaging in commercial activity for public accommodation, you are supposed to serve everyone. … Your religious freedom cannot infringe on the rights of others. RFRA claims religious rights are special and trump others.”

During the panel, Schneider discussed the organization’s efforts to push for non-discrimination laws concerning sexual orientation and gender identity, ranging from the right for transgender individuals to change the gender on their driver’s license, to discrediting of doctors performing “conversion therapy” on gay and lesbian individuals.

Schneider added LGBT individuals are still legally denied employment, housing and other public services due to their sexual orientation, with only six West Virginia cities having non-discrimination ordinances on the books. He believes Wheeling should consider adopting such an ordinance to grow business opportunity in the Ohio Valley.

“Now that marriage equality has arrived in West Virginia and the country, LGBT non-discrimination laws have become even more important,” Schneider said. “Those laws protect LGBT people from discrimination for employment, housing and public accommodation. They’re more important now with marriage equality because marriage has made our community both more visible, and therefore more vulnerable.”

Sister Barbara Kupchak, a former WJU employee and nurse, said she opposes HB 4012.

“As a health care worker, if this passes and I would decide a Muslim, gay person, or whoever offends my religion, I could refuse them treatment,” Kupchak. “That’s not right and not constitutional.”

According to institute director Beth Collins, the “Appalachia on the Fringe” community series will cover an array of topics involving social groups that often go overlooked in the Mountain State. The next session, “Relatives as Parents,” will take place at 6 p.m. March 17.

“We wanted this series to highlight communities that don’t get a lot of attention in the media or just in people’s minds but are really prevalent and vital in our area,” Collins said. “I think that whether we’re talking about pro-life issues, discrimination issues or environmental issues, it’s really important to hear different sides of the story. We bring up issues that are sometimes controversial because it’s an important discussion for our students and the public.”

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