By Lawrence Messina
As the U.S. Supreme Court heard historic arguments over same-sex marriage, a lead supporter signaled defeat Wednesday for the latest House of Delegates bid to add sexual orientation to West Virginia’s anti-discrimination laws.
Delegate Stephen Skinner told colleagues that he asked the chairman of a committee assigned to the bill not to take it up ahead of a Friday procedural deadline. The Jefferson County Democrat cited concerns that the measure’s proposed exemption for religious organizations would be amended so broadly as to make it meaningless.
“I believe that the wisest course of action today is to delay the battle in the House for another day,” Skinner said in a floor speech.
West Virginia’s first openly gay legislator, Skinner cited how hundreds of volunteers had lobbied for the bill through phone banks and other efforts. He thanked them along with fellow sponsors and lawmakers who had publicly sided in favor of the measure.
“To those of you who support the (bill) but feel you cannot vote for it, it is not my job to soothe your conscience,” Skinner said. “I will not give up on you, but I want you to explain to your children, your grandchildren, your brothers, sisters and friends, why you will not do so.”
The bill seeks to add sexual orientation to the Human Rights Act, which prohibits workplace and public accommodation discrimination, and both orientation and age to the state’s fair housing law. Senate President Jeff Kessler has proposed a similar measure along with other leaders in that chamber, but it also faces the same procedural deadline. Skinner said the Senate was awaiting action in the 100-delegate House, where such proposals have died in previous sessions.
Both Kessler and Senate Judiciary Chair Corey Palumbo, whose committee has that chamber’s bill, said Skinner was correct and cited how the Senate has passed such measures in recent years.
“If they can’t get it out of the House, there’s no reason for the Senate to pass it yet again,” said Palumbo, D-Kanawha and a co-sponsor. “But I am the first to tell you that if the House passed it over to here, we would take it up.”
The House measure defined orientation to include heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality and “gender identity or expression.” Skinner said he also objected to an apparent plan to remove transgender people from the bill entirely.
“I have to do what I think is best for the bill as the lead sponsor, and what is best for all of the LGBT community in West Virginia,” Skinner told reporters.
Opponents include Delegate Kelli Sobonya. The Cabell County Republican said she objects to carving out classes of people for what she called extra protections.
“I’ve voted against other bills in the past that would elevate government workers such as myself,” Sobonya said. She also said, “I just think that our constitution gives protection to all, and our constitution wants all to be equal, and we keep adding and adding and adding.”
Sobonya said she represents a conservative district and has heard more from constituents opposed to such proposals.
“From what people I’m hearing from, it’s their religious freedom,” Sobonya said. “A lot of them who talk to me aren’t giving a reason, they just want me to vote against it.”
Skinner had cited the back-to-back cases before the U.S. Supreme Court involving gay marriage issues during his floor speech. He quoted the question during Tuesday’s arguments from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who asked whether, “Outside of the marriage context, can you think of any other rational basis, reason, for a state using sexual orientation as a factor in denying homosexuals benefits or imposing burdens on them?”
Kessler also contrasted the fate of the House bill with the landmark hearings, and the recent repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
“I’m disappointed that once again, they couldn’t even get it to a vote,” Kessler said.