The House of Delegates passed a bill Tuesday that would give legal protections to religious clergymen who decline to affirm marriages that conflict with their religious beliefs.
House Bill 4010 is now en route to the state Senate after its 90-5 passage vote.
The bill shields clergymen like priests, rabbis or imams from legal liability if they refuse to solemnize a marriage that contradicts their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
One of the few to oppose the bill, Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, bristled with House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, accusing the legislation’s supporters of pandering to voters as an election season draws near, citing a lack of evidence of a problem for the bill to solve.
He said the bill just repeats protections that already exist and is just a waste of time.
However, Shott said despite the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the “Religious Freedom Guaranteed” section of the state constitution, faith leaders could be exposed to a lawsuit for declining to solemnize a marriage. He said the Legislature can act preemptively to prevent a situation before it occurs.
“Some commentators have theorized that it is possible that the government could impose a condition on its grant of the authority to solemnize marriages and could require the celebrant to be willing to serve all couples,” he said.
The bill could apply to a number of different weddings clergy could decline to solemnize, including same-sex marriages, interfaith marriages or marriages where one or both parties have previously been divorced.
Of the five who opposed the bill, Delegate Danny Wagner, R-Barbour, was the only Republican. After the session, he declined an interview request regarding the no-vote.
While no legislators spoke in favor of the bill when it came before the House Judiciary Committee, several gave supportive speeches from the House floor.
Delegate John Kelly, R-Wood, said the bill affirms a simple constitutional principle of the free exercise of religion, and there’s no reason to oppose it.
“A no vote would be a vote against the constitution,” he said.
Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, citing an ongoing U.S. Supreme Court case regarding a baker who declined to make a specialty cake for a gay couple, spoke in favor of the bill.
“Maybe there’s not a case here, on record yet, in the state of West Virginia, but ask the cake baker, ask the photographer who refuses to perform part of a wedding function based on sincerely held religious beliefs,” he said.
One Democrat, Justin Marcum, D-Mingo, spoke in favor of the bill as well.
“What’s the problem with giving additional protections to our pastors?” he said.
In an interview last week, Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, said his organization has a neutral stance on the bill, though he questioned whether there was any legitimate need for it.
House Democrats Pushkin, Mike Caputo, Barbara Fleischauer, and Andrew Robinson voted no.
The religious freedom bill was not the only piece of legislation to draw flak from Democrats, who questioned the chamber’s priorities. Robinson made a motion to indefinitely table House Bill 4006, which would reconfigure the Department of Education and the Arts and terminate Gayle Manchin’s cabinet secretary position, per a recent story from WV MetroNews.
Robinson implicitly accused its backers of taking a political stab at Manchin, whose husband, Sen. Joe Manchin, is currently running for re-election to the U.S. Senate.
“This is the bill where we’re trying to fire Gayle Manchin for political reasons, correct?” Robinson asked House Education Committee Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, before being essentially booed down by the chamber.
Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, said the motion is unnecessary and that the House will have its chance to vote on the matter Wednesday. Robinson’s motion failed by a landslide.