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Legislation seeks fairness for gays, lesbians

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Supporters are hopeful a newly revamped bill to prevent discrimination against gays and lesbians will pass the Legislature this year, but lawmakers are hesitant to guess how that legislation will fare.

The bill, which has been introduced in the last three legislative sessions, would prohibit landlords and businesses with more than a dozen employees from discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation.

It is currently legal in West Virginia to fire or evict a person because they are gay or bisexual.

Frank Hartman, a lobbyist for Fairness West Virginia, says the group is "extremely optimistic" the bill will pass this session.

He said Fairness West Virginia, which supports equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, has worked for months on a new version of the bill.

It now includes a religious exemption, which Hartman said would make the bill more appealing to conservative lawmakers. The exemption is based on federal law and would free churches and church-run businesses like hospitals from having to hire gay or lesbian individuals.

He said the bill also has the support of two major West Virginia businesses, American Electric Power and Frontier Communications.

Hartman said his group was initially worried about the increased number of Republicans in the House this year - the GOP picked up 11 House seats in November's elections, bringing its grand total to 46 - but now believes the shift in power will not affect the anti-discrimination bill's chances.

"Initially we thought, uh-oh, this might be a problem. But it's turned out not to be," he said. "We have a handful of Republicans that we have been talking with that are very open to the legislation.

I think that's, in part, a generational thing. At a certain age people have no real issue with it."

He said nationally, anti-discrimination legislation has proved to be a bipartisan issue.

"This isn't gay marriage. This is about employment only. There are so many people who say 'You mean that's not illegal already?' " he said. "When you look at it as a fairness issue and an equality issue, people can get behind it."

When asked about the bill's chances this year, Troy Andes, minority chairman of the Economic Development and Small Business Committee, said it would be premature to comment on legislation before it has been introduced or assigned to a committee.

Andes, R-Putnam, said he did not review the anti-discrimination bill last year because the committee chairman, Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, did not put it on the committee agenda. He said none of his constituents contacted him about the bill, either.

But Andes said if the bill is assigned to his committee this year, he hopes it will receive a full debate.

Hartman said Fairness West Virginia hopes to have its bill introduced within the first week of session.

While Senate President Jeff Kessler has been a stalwart supporter of the bill in years past, he said he would talk to his fellow senators in caucus before deciding how to approach the legislation this year.

The state Senate passed the bill in both the 2010 and 2011 sessions, only to have it fail in the House. Last year, lawmakers agreed to start the bill in the House to see if it could gain traction.

House Speaker Rick Thompson assigns each bill introduced in the House of Delegates to at least one committee. A bill must receive majority support in its assigned committees before it can go before the whole body.

But before committee members can vote on a piece of legislation, committee chairmen must decide which bills will go on the committee's agenda. If a bill is not placed on an agenda, it will not be voted on, ending its chances of passage.

Thompson referred the legislation last year to the House's Energy, Industry and Labor, Economic Development and Small Business Committee, where it died.

Speaking to the Daily Mail last year, Skaff said he did not put the bill on his committee's agenda because it did not have enough support to pass the full House.

He said then it would be better to run the bill in the 2013 session, "when people have a chance to better understand the issue."

The 2012 session, like the 2011 session before it, coincided with statewide elections.

With just days before the 2013 session begins, Skaff seems less confident of the bill's chances.

"I treat it like every piece of legislation. No chairman wants to put a piece of legislation in front of a committee and it can't even pass your committee," he said. "We're going to treat it the same way we treat it every other year.

"You take a poll of your committee members and see if there's interest in running any piece of legislation."

Skaff said he has yet to meet the whole committee because seven members were just elected in last November's election, but said the new members might allow the body to "do new pieces of legislation that we haven't in the past."

There are 12 Democrats and nine Republicans on Skaff's committee this year.

Committees benefit from "more evenly balanced members of Democrats and Republicans." A lot of "like-minded people" ready to put parties aside, work together to put people back to work.

Kessler said he hopes the bill passes this year. He said not having an antidiscrimination bill on the books makes West Virginia look "backward," and the state needs to pass the law if it wants to attract big businesses and young people to the state.

He said most young people "don't give a rat's patoot" about a person's sexual orientation.

"If we're trying to attract young people in our state, it's the wrong public policy to set up barriers," he said. "The Constitution is there to support the minority, not the majority."

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.


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