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Senate President Carmichael Pushes Back on Anti-discrimination Debate

CHARLESTON — Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said Tuesday that statements by advocates and opponents of an effort to protect West Virginia’s LGBTQ community have misrepresented his position.

“Lately, I have been disappointed by both the advocates and the opponents of the West Virginia Fairness Act for rushing to publish press releases about their perception of my position on the bill,” Carmichael said. “Frankly, my individual position on any bill before the Senate should be addressed by me, and by no other group.”

Carmichael said Tuesday that he supports efforts to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s housing and employment non-discrimination statutes, but the Fairness Act isn’t the best way to accomplish this in its present form.

“Based on my review to this point, my personal opinion is the specific language of the proposed West Virginia Fairness Act does not have my individual support,” he said. “In my view, this legislation must do more to allay the justifiable fears of good Christian people regarding the usurpation of their religious liberties.”

Senate Bill 270 creating the Fairness Act was introduced Jan. 10 with by Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke; and senators Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, and Michael Woelfel, D-Cabell. The bill would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state Human Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act.

The bill is supported by Fairness West Virginia, an LGBTQ civil rights advocacy group, as well as more than 100 members of clergy from around the state.

The bill, previously called the Employment and Housing Non-Discrimination Act, had also received support in the past from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and other pro-business groups.

Carmichael was part of a Dec. 2 panel organized by Fairness West Virginia to discuss the Fairness Act, though Carmichael warned attendees then that his appearance was not necessarily a sign of his support. Carmichael made headlines in 2016 with a speech against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill supported by Christian groups but opposed by the LGBTQ community that saw it as an open invitation for discrimination.

“Wherever I encounter instances that diminish the God-given value of any person, I am inspired to make the necessary changes that enable people to pursue the liberty and freedom of a fulfilling life,” Carmichael said. “Any form of discrimination or prejudice against a child of God is a limiting factor upon the achievements of a nation, state, community and individual.”

Not all religious leaders in the state support the bill. A number of Baptist pastors from Carmichael’s senatorial district have come out against the Fairness Act. More than a dozen of these pastors released a statement last week stating their opposition and describing a meeting with Carmichael where the two-term senator said the bill would not run in the Senate.

Carmichael said while he doesn’t support the Fairness Act as written, he’s been in listening mode between LGBTQ advocates and Christian leaders about how to best balance a non-discrimination statute that gives both sides the protections they seek.

“Well-meaning people on both sides of this issue have been pushing for quick decisions to either advance or to discard the proposal by Fairness West Virginia to create the West Virginia Fairness Act,” Carmichael said. “Yet, even a cursory review of the proposed legislation will reveal that it contains many complicated and complex elements that are deserving of thoughtful analysis. My effort as Senate president is directed toward respectfully listening and seeking to better understand the perspectives of each side on the issue.”

Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, said his group stands behind the language of SB 270 as written. There’s no reason to change it, he said.

“Similar language is already on the books in 20 other states and 12 cities and towns across West Virginia,” Schneider said. “This language is simple, uncomplicated and it works. It’s the only way to ensure hardworking West Virginians can live free from discrimination. It should not be legal to fire, evict or deny LGBTQ people public services just because of who they are or who they love.”

Carmichael’s opponent in the Republican primary in the 4th Senatorial District, Del. Jim Butler, released a statement Tuesday evening. The Mason County Republican said Carmichael’s stance continues to breathe life into the bill.

“Once again I’m concerned, as should all voters in the 4th senate district should be, that he is lending his power and influence to restore legislative momentum for a dangerous bill,” Butler said. “The wrongly-named bill isn’t about fairness. It’s a sue-and-settle shakedown scheme that ultimately benefits the Democrat Party. It is an attempt to grant special status and protections for a tiny but powerful group of people.”

A request for comment from Bo Burgess, pastor of the Jordan Baptist Church in Gallipolis Ferry who represented the pastors opposed to the Fairness Act, was not immediately returned.

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