West Virginia GOP governor signs ‘religious freedom’ bill

March 9, 2023 GMT

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signed a law Thursday described by supporters as a tool to protect religious freedom but labeled a “license to discriminate” by LGBTQ rights advocates.

The Republican governor quietly signed the “Equal Protection for Religion Act” the same day as protesters rallied at the state Capitol against a different bill that would outlaw certain health care for transgender minors, including hormone therapy.

The religious freedom bill signed by Justice stipulates the government would not be able to “substantially burden” someone’s constitutional right to freedom of religion unless doing so “is essential to further a compelling governmental interest.”

In cases where the government can prove to the courts there is a “compelling interest” to restrict that right, government officials must demonstrate that religious freedoms are being infringed upon in “the least restrictive means” possible.

At least 23 other states have similar religious freedom restoration acts. The laws are modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton, which allows federal regulations that interfere with religious beliefs to be challenged.

Supporters have asserted the bill is meant to protect all people against religious discrimination and is not aimed at any particular group. They’ve described it as a “judicial test” for courts to apply when people challenge government regulations they believe interfere with their constitutional right to religious freedom.

Before the bill passed the Senate last month, GOP Sen. Amy Grady said there’s been a lot of misinformation circulating about the measure: “We can’t violate somebody’s civil rights or human rights.”

Grady, the Senate Education chair, said the bill is “not going to harm the people of West Virginia.”

“The bottom line is we shouldn’t punish someone for practicing their religion unless there’s a very good reason to do so,” she said.

Democratic Sen. Mike Caputo of Marion County expressed concern that the bill could put nondiscrimination laws or ordinances that protect LGBTQ groups “in jeopardy.”

Earlier that month, House GOP lawmakers rejected a Democratic-proposed amendment last month that would have barred the law from being used to discriminate.

The bill also dictates the proposed law could not be used as an argument to defend abortion, which was effectively banned by West Virginia lawmakers last year. The provision was included as abortion rights groups are challenging abortion bans in some states by arguing the bans violate the religious rights of people with different beliefs.