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The ‘Fairness Act’ still a political football

Last week I attended a rollout for the Fairness Act, which even before it truly gets out of the gate is already a political football.

The Fairness Act is a new name for something old that has largely been introduced every year since 1993 (or as far back as the West Virginia Legislature’s online database of bills will let you search). Simply put, it adds “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the state’s Human Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act.

Put even more simply: If passed, you wouldn’t be able to deny housing or hire and fire people based on whom they love or how they identify.

As I’ve said, there have been efforts for at least 27 years to at least add sexual orientation to state law. Here is what the declaration of policy currently says in the Human Rights Act.

“It is the public policy of the State of West Virginia to provide all of its citizens equal opportunity for employment, equal access to places of public accommodations, and equal opportunity in the sale, purchase, lease, rental and financing of housing accommodations or real property.”

For some people, the sentence should be enough. “We already prohibit discrimination,” some would say. But let’s continue on to the next two sentences:

“Equal opportunity in the areas of employment and public accommodations is hereby declared to be a human right or civil right of all persons without regard to race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, blindness or disability. Equal opportunity in housing accommodations or real property is hereby declared to be a human right or civil right of all persons without regard to race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, blindness, disability or familial status.”

Yes, the first sentence says “all,” but yet somewhere down the line we felt the need to single out “race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, blindness or disability.” Some might say adding sexual orientation and gender identity to that list creates another class of citizen. That’s in essence, what Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, argued in a press release last week.

“These newly proposed laws are not about equality, they set up a circumstance where certain people have special protections rather than equality,” Butler said. More about him in a second.

I could possibly be persuaded by this argument if there hadn’t been multiple examples of racial discrimination in our past, or times when someone with a disability was told there was no apartments left in the complex when that was a lie. The reason the Human Rights Act has those various categories is because at one time or another those people have been harassed at work, fired, or had their application chucked into the trash.

Yes, it would be nice if we could just get by on the first sentence of the Human Rights Act and not need the rest of it. But there are examples of a gay person being fired from their job not because of their job performance but because the boss saw Joe holding hands with Bob at the local pizzeria.

No one is asking people to give up their religious beliefs and Biblical interpretations of what is and isn’t sinful. But my King James Bible doesn’t appear to say anything about denying housing and employment to sinners. In fact, my Bible says we’re all sinners, so under that logic we should all be unemployed and homeless.

••••••

One of the people at the Fairness Act announcement was Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson. He said he supports the concept of the Fairness Act, but it would all depend on what the language of the bill would be.

Carmichael also said he wouldn’t be a sponsor, saying that as senate president he only co-sponsors bills on behalf of the governor. This is demonstratively false. He was the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 1 in January, creating the West Virginia Invests community and technical college grant program. Past senate presidents have introduced all kinds of bills on their own.

Versions of the Fairness Act have never once gotten out of the committee. As I said earlier, versions have been introduced since 1993, which is amazing. But no matter which party controls the Legislature (Republicans have controlled the Legislature since 2015), the bill gets no traction.

Is this the year? Based on some of Carmichael’s answers at the Fairness Act announcement, I’m unsure. Del. Butler, who I talked about earlier in this column, is challenging Carmichael for his Senate seat which encompasses Jackson and Mason counties, and parts of Roane and Putnam counties. It’s a mostly rural district and, safe to say, socially conservative.

Carmichael has fought off union-funded Democratic candidates before. But this time he is being challenged in the Republican primary from his right flank. Polling from over two years ago shows that the state is becoming more accepting of adding non-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ and transgender communities. But if Carmichael wants to win the primary, he might be more concerned where his district stands on the issue.

One thing is for sure: The Fairness Act hinges on what Carmichael decides to do next month during the 2020 legislative session.

(Adams is the state government reporter for Ogden Newspapers. He can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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