U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is the only Democratic senator who didn’t sign on to a bill introduced this week in Congress to extend protections in housing, employment and public accommodations to LGBT people.
Republicans representing the area, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Congresswoman Carol Miller, also have not signed on as co-sponsors.
Senate Bill 788, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., has 43 Democratic sponsors, two Independent sponsors, and one Republican sponsor, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
It adds LGBT protections to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, as well as the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex.
“We’re sorely disappointed to see that neither of West Virginia’s senators sponsored this commonsense legislation aimed at fundamental fairness,” said Joseph Cohen, executive director of the West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
He added that the ACLU is concerned about how the lack of sponsorship “reflects on the image of West Virginia across the country.”
“I think we can see very directly the need for the Equality Act in West Virginia after this legislative session,” he said, referencing state Del. Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, who compared “the LGBTQ” to the KKK and attempted to invalidate local LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances.
“He could be an employer,” Cohen said. “He could be a landlord. People like him should not be able to control the lives of LGBT people in our state.”
The bill notes that LGBT people routinely are rejected when seeking housing and more likely to live in poverty. It states that they commonly experience discrimination in securing access to public accommodations, such as restaurants, senior centers, stores or shelters.
“Forms of discrimination include the exclusion and denial of entry, unequal or unfair treatment, harassment, and violence,” the bill states. “This discrimination prevents the full participation of LGBTQ people in society and disrupts the free flow of commerce.”
The bill also prohibits discrimination in child welfare. According to the ACLU, the Trump administration is allowing child placement agencies who receive federal funding to discriminate against LGBT foster parents.
The bill also says that LGBT children in foster care have a higher average number of placements, higher likelihood of living in a group home, and higher rates of hospitalization for emotional reasons and juvenile justice involvement than their non-LGBT peers because of discrimination and difficulty finding supportive foster families.
“Further, due to their physical distance from friends and family, traumatic experiences, and potentially unstable living situations, many youth involved with child welfare are at risk for being targeted by traffickers seeking to exploit children,” the bill states.
Manchin also didn’t sign on to a similar bill in 2017 and, after the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, sent out a one-sentence statement about the need to abide by the law. Katey McCutcheon, a spokeswoman for Manchin, said his office had no comment Friday evening.
A spokeswoman for Capito said she was not available Friday, while a spokesman for Miller did not respond to inquiries.
A similar bill in the U.S. House of Representatives includes 239 cosponsors, with one Democrat missing, Dan Lipinski from Illinois.
Cohen said the bill also expands protections for women. It clarifies the types of places that count as public accommodations, saying that “any establishment that provides a good, service, or program” qualifies.
“It would ban a routine practice that mechanics have of charging women more than men for the same car services,” he noted.
It also prohibits discrimination by transportation providers, prompting the national ACLU to issue a statement saying the bill makes it “illegal to discriminate against individuals for ‘shopping while Black’ or ‘flying while brown.'”
Cohen said in West Virginia, the biggest effect would be protections for LGBT people. West Virginia state code lacks those protections. Efforts to enact them in state code have failed for many years, under Democratic and Republican leadership.
“In that sense, the Equality Act would transform the civil rights landscape in our state,” Cohen said.
Democrats attempted to discharge a similar, state-level bill from committee several times this legislative session, but were voted down. The bill had been sent to Del. Tom Fast’s Industry and Labor Committee, and Fast, R-Fayette, opposed the bill.
Senate Bill 788 also says that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act cannot be used in civil rights contexts. More than 20 states have their own versions of those laws.
Civil liberties advocates have warned those laws may be used so businesses and others can discriminate against LGBT people. When a similar bill was introduced in West Virginia, some supporters openly said they wanted to pass the law in reaction to the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Father Brian O’Donnell, director of the Catholic Conference of West Virginia, said that the Catholic Conference had supported RFRA, when it failed in West Virginia in 2016.
He said that the law simply enacts a test for courts to follow and that while LGBT advocates seemed to have “great fear” it would go further and conservative groups seemed to have “great hope” it would go further, he wasn’t aware of any time it had been successfully used to discriminate against LGBT people.
He pointed to a statement from the Conference of Catholic Bishops, which said:
“Does RFRA provide a ‘license to discriminate’ against gay people? No. RFRA provides a day in court for people with conscientious objections to general laws, allowing a more careful balancing of rights.”
RFRA was used in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, when United States Supreme Court justices decided certain companies didn’t have to provide employee insurance coverage of contraceptives.
According to the ACLU, it was also used when a federal court in Michigan ruled in favor of a funeral home that fired a transgender employee due to her gender identity, a case that was overturned by an appeals court.
The ACLU supported RFRA when it was first enacted to protect religious minorities. The federal law passed in 1993 after two Native Americans were fired from their jobs and denied unemployment benefits after they used peyote, an illegal drug, in religious ceremonies.
Cohen noted that the ACLU regularly represents religious groups.
“We represent Christians in their free exercise of religion, probably more than any other religion,” he said.
But they no longer support RFRA. Cohen said that the government has significant interest in prohibiting discrimination. He said that they don’t think the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty means the government can’t prohibit discrimination.
“We don’t think it prohibits it from banning discrimination, based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” he said. “We also don’t think it prohibits the government from banning discrimination based on race, or religion for that matter.”