Carmichael

West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, calls the Senate to order during the first day of a special legislative session on May 4.

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael offered hedged support Tuesday for establishing legal protections for LGBTQ people in West Virginia, likely teeing up controversy for the looming session over a contentious social issue.

Carmichael, R-Jackson, sat on a panel hosted by Fairness West Virginia, a same-sex rights advocacy group pushing legislation that would establish housing and workplace anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning people.

While he stopped short of endorsing any bill outright, Carmichael pledged to “thoughtfully, incredibly review this legislation” and feel out the public’s pulse on it.

“Me being here is controversial, because there’s an expectation that this bill will run because of my appearance here. That’s not necessarily the case,” Carmichael said. “This may not be the right bill, may not be the right time. It may not be in the perfect structure. And we need to find that out. When you move a society forward, you have to bring everyone along. We’re trying to do that in the best way possible.”

State law currently protects West Virginians from discrimination on behalf of race, ethnicity, and other traits, but not sexual orientation or gender identity.

For instance, the Senate majority leader sponsored Senate Bill 391 with bipartisan support behind him, one of several anti-discrimination bills that died quiet deaths in 2019. No committee ever put it up for a vote.

On the other hand, Fairness praised Carmichael for his support in staving off “religious freedom” legislation in 2016 that the LGBTQ community said would have legally protected discrimination.

Prior to Tuesday’s panel, Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, attacked Carmichael’s support for the anti-discrimination legislation. Butler, who is challenging Carmichael in a primary, claimed the bill would open a new avenue of litigation against employers or landlords who “may be accused of being politically incorrect.”

Carmichael deflected the criticism.

“To be criticized for just participating in the discussion, it says something about those people,” he said. “It says more about those people than those who are here genuinely trying to move our society forward.”

Religious, business and community leaders and a Democratic delegate also spoke on the panel supporting the legislation.

Anti-discrimination legislation has died many deaths in the House of Delegates recently. House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, referred several such bills to the Industry and Labor Committee last session, whose chairman outspokenly opposes anti-discrimination legislation.

“According sexual preference special status will also create social division,” said Industry and Labor Chairman Tom Fast, R-Fayette, during a floor speech in 2016.

“History and reason illustrates the insanity of according special civil right protections to a person’s sexual preference. Once homosexual, bisexual and transgender behavior has elevated to a protected status, there is nothing to stop bigamy, pedophilia or any other sexual practice from receiving the same protection.”

Democrats tried and failed repeatedly to forcibly discharge the bill from committee to the floor, almost always failing on party lines. Hanshaw, through a spokesman, declined an interview request.

Support from the Senate President should give legislation the oomph to overcome resistance in the House of Delegates, according to Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia.

“I think if the Senate were to overwhelmingly pass this legislation out of its chamber, I think that would have an enormous public impact, and a persuasive impact on the House,” he said.

In interviews, House Democrats expressed interest with Carmichael’s push, though worried what might be said in a floor debate. During the 2019 session, Delegate Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, derailed a committee hearing by uttering an anti-gay slur while discussing a bill. He later took to the media to compare the LGBTQ community to the Ku Klux Klan.

“In the case of last year, in light of those comments that (Porterfield) made, it really escalated the tensions surrounding the issue,” said House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison. “As a result, it became a political hot potato that I don’t believe the Republican majority wanted to deal with, but they may be willing to deal with this year.”

That said, Miley noted Democrats also failed to establish such legal protections while they had the majority. But with increasing public and political support, he said now’s the time.

“This bill I believe was around even when Democrats were in the majority, and there was a number of Democrats who at that time were not supportive of the bill,” he said. “But many of them have either evolved on the issue or are no longer in office.”

Delegate Sammi Brown, D-Jefferson, said current law leaves LGBTQ people vulnerable to housing and employment discrimination. Given the “offensive” language from Porterfield, the time is now for West Virginia to make a statement, she said.

“It was hard not to paint the House of Delegates and the Legislature as a whole as a body that was now complicit to that kind of rhetoric and that kind of language,” she said. “We saw it during the regular session. We saw how governance and representation in West Virginia was tainted — nationally.”

Reach Jake Zuckerman at jake.zuckerman@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.

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