West Virginia passes Religious Freedom Restoration Act


West Virginia state capitol, Charleston. / Henryk Sadura/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Mar 1, 2023 / 16:05 pm (CNA).

The West Virginia Legislature gave final approval Tuesday to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which will now advance to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

The West Virginia Senate, in which Republicans hold a majority, passed the religious liberty bill in a strict party-line vote, 30 in favor and 3 opposed.

Having already passed the state’s House of Delegates on Monday, the bill has only to be signed by Republican Gov. Jim Justice to become law.

The bill guarantees West Virginians’ freedom from any state interference that may “substantially burden a person’s right to exercise of religion.”

West Virginia’s bill is one of now 24 similar laws passed by states across the nation. The act is modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that was passed in 1993 but then deemed unconstitutional in application to states by a federal court in 1997.

According to Becket, a religious liberty law firm, state RFRAs “level the playing field in court for people of deeply held religious convictions.”

RFRAs are designed to protect all religious groups, Becket states on its website. The act itself was created, Becket points out, after Oregon denied unemployment benefits to Native American counselors who were fired for using peyote in their religious ceremonies.​​

One high-profile case involving an RFRA is the Oct. 15, 2019, case in which a federal district court in Texas ruled that the “transgender mandate” in the Affordable Care Act violated the federal RFRA. In his decision, Judge Reed O’Connor said that providers’ and insurers’ refusal to perform or pay for transgender procedures was an exercise of their religious freedom.

The bill’s opponents in West Virginia argue that it will be used to discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals and groups within the state.

“I think it’s going to become the forefront of embarrassment again and show backwoods mentality for the state of West Virginia, when I think we can simplify it all: Why don’t we all just try to get along?” Democratic state Sen. Mike Caputo said. “Why don’t we all just let people be what they want to be and let them love who they want to love and practice their religion the way they want to practice their religion?”

Republican state Sen. Amy Grady disagreed with Caputo’s assessment of the bill.

“This is not a tool for discrimination, it is a shield to protect all people,” Grady said. “The bottom line is, we shouldn’t punish someone for practicing their religion unless there’s a very good reason to do so.”

The West Virginia Republican Party celebrated the bill’s passage with party chairwoman Elgine McArdle, saying in a Tuesday email to supporters: “The Secular Left has weaponized the government against men and women of faith all over the country, whether it is forcing them to bake cakes for weddings which they do not want to participate, or for prosecuting Catholics who pray outside of abortion clinics. I am proud that the elected leadership in West Virginia stood up for our rights and defended our core values.”

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