Senate Completes “Equal Protection for Religion Act”- Bill Now Heads to Governor for Signature.

After debating regarding religious freedom, individual rights and discrimination, the Senate suspended the constitutional rules requiring a bill be read on three separate days to complete action on the Equal Protection for Religion Act Tuesday evening.

House Bill 3042, if signed by the Governor, would provide a legal standard in court for people who believe the government has infringed on their religious beliefs. The legislation, while short in length is broad in concept and does not specifically spell out how that standard might be applied.

According to the bill, “no state action may burden a person’s exercise of freedom of religion, unless doing so is essential and is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. A person, the definition of which includes incorporated entities under state law, whose freedom of religion has been burdened may use that violation as claim or defense in any judicial or administrative proceeding, including against the state or its political subdivisions.”

Under the bill, a person whose exercise of religion has been burdened may go to court over the situation. There’s a caveat that nothing in the policy could create a cause of action by an employee against a nongovernmental employer. The legislation specifies that it would apply to all state and local laws.

Opponents of the bill expressed concerns that the legislation could be used to strike down local nondiscrimination laws, as well as create situations where religion is used to deny services to West Virginians. Concern was also expressed regarding the potential of the bill to be used to strike down immunization laws for children and public safety directives that would prevent gathering for religious purposes.

The bill now heads to the Governor’s desk to await his signature.

Earlier Tuesday, the Senate passed 15 bills in the lead up to crossover day at the Legislature. By the end of legislative business tomorrow, March 1, all Senate bills must be in possession of the House and vice versa.