West Virginia's lawmakers once again have an opportunity to extend valuable protections to all of its citizens, this time via legislation that would broaden the state's hate-crime law.

Current state law protects individuals and property from violence, or intimidation by threat of violence, based on race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation or sex. As a court case originating in Cabell County concluded last year, the word "sex" applies to gender only. It does not protect people from violent acts or intimidation if the acts or threats relate to their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Because of that gap, roughly 55,000 West Virginians lack the same protections as their fellow citizens in the Mountain State, based on polling released last year by Gallup regarding percentage of residents who identify as gay, bisexual or transgender. That's a lot of people to be deemed as second class, under the provisions of state law as it now stands.

But a bill introduced in the current legislative session - HB 4281 - would remedy that by making the law applicable to people victimized because of their gender identity and sexual orientation.

The bill also adds a new wrinkle for anyone who violates the law. It has an alternative sentencing option that would allow a judge to assign the perpetrator to community service, giving him or her a chance to work alongside those affected by his or her crime and research the culture of the group with whom his or her prejudice lies. The idea is to build bridges among people who are different from one another and perhaps change attitudes based on prejudices.

Of course, West Virginia's lawmakers have had an opportunity to do this before. In the court case that clarified that "sex" applies only to gender, a defense attorney noted that the Legislature had declined to add sexual orientation to the state hate-crime law 26 times since its 1987 enactment. That's a shameful record.

It's also worth noting that Legislatures in the past also have declined to amend the state's civil rights law to ban discrimination against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Lawmakers a few years ago went so far as to consider legislation that would have nullified ordinances by cities that had voted to extend those protections. Fortunately, that effort failed, but the Legislature also has the opportunity to amend that law so that a portion of the population is not excluded.

The state constitution, in its bill of citizens rights, states that all residents of West Virginia are "equally free and independent" and are entitled, among other things, to "pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."

As long as a portion of the state's citizens are not protected from hate crimes and discrimination, the state fails to live up to those guarantees. It's time for the state's lawmakers to rectify that.

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