The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

March 14, 2009

State Senate passes discrimination bill

Opponents claim legislation could unleash lawsuits

CHARLESTON — A year ago, the West Virginia Senate unanimously passed a bill banning discrimination in housing or employment based on sexual orientation, but the numbers were much different Friday.

A new version of the bill — which died in the House of Delegates last year — passed, but this time it was out of a divided Senate, with members delivering impassioned speeches on the floor.

“I will not shrink from, nor be silenced by, the political attacks of any group who preaches discrimination over dignity, intolerance over fairness, or fear over hope,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall.

Sexual orientation has simmered in the background of the session, with the Family Policy Council of West Virginia pushing for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. A resolution supporting such an amendment was introduced in the Senate a week ago.

Opponents of the anti-discrimination bill, though, didn’t use that argument in criticizing the proposal. They said it was simply muddled, vague legislation that could unleash a wave of lawsuits along with other unintended consequences.

Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth, R-Mercer, noted the bill’s language in defining sexual orientation includes gays along with heterosexuals and people who identify as bisexual.

“Everybody’s part of the protected class, when you put all the three categories together here under sexual orientation,” he said. “Heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual. That includes everyone.”

Caruth argued that under the bill’s language, a heterosexual fired from a job could theoretically sue on the basis of discrimination over sexual orientation.

“By passing this bill, we would literally destroy employment at will in the state of West Virginia,” he said.

Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said other anti-discrimination protections already part of state law, such as race and gender, are immediately apparent. Sexual identity is more subjective, he said, and it could cause problems in how the bill is applied.

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