The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is receiving a mixed bag of reactions from religious leaders, local officials and business owners in Raleigh County.
While some feel the bill would allow discrimination within the Mountain State’s borders, others believe the bill would allow business owners with religious convictions the right to express their beliefs.
St. Stephens Episcopal Church Priest John White is one of the former. He says the bill is a bad idea.
“It’s like the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s — If you want to be in business and serve people in the state, you need to be willing to serve all the people in the state.”
White believes this bill would allow business owners to refuse service to, and discriminate against, people based on their race, gender, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
And from a theological perspective, he said it’s the Christian command to recognize the dignity of every human being.
“That judgment is not yours, it is God’s alone.”
Pastor John Jordan of Calvary Assembly of God, however, does not find the bill discriminatory and hopes to see it made into law.
He said just because people have a religious conviction, they should not be discouraged from going into commerce and forced to leave their religious convictions at the door.
“Florists, photographers, bakers and individuals who print T-shirts were being asked to participate in things that were against their religious convictions,” Jordan said. “They didn’t have much recourse when federal and state agencies stepped in and said they had to.”
Jordan argues this issue isn’t just about business owners who oppose gay marriage.
“Say there’s a Muslim who owns a T-shirt business. If someone want them to print T-shirts that speak negatively against Islam for a demonstration, they should not have to be forced to print those T-shirts.”
Jordan said he believes if this bill is passed, business owners will be afforded protections in “frivolous lawsuits.”
“It’s unfortunate that a nation founded upon religious freedom, one of our first protected rights, that we find ourselves in a position that we have to fortify that right of ours.”
He pointed to the fact that many other states have passed similar bills, and he believes a safer environment will be established for West Virginia businesses.
Dave Tolliver, president of the Raleigh County Commission, too, spoke in favor of the bill. He said, “I don’t see any way, shape or form where it’s going to affect business in Raleigh County.”
However, Bill Baker, who has worked extensively with economic development in southern West Virginia, disagrees.
“From an economic standpoint, I think it would hurt the state.”
Baker said he sees no need for that kind of discriminatory legislation, no matter how hard legislators are trying to pass it off as a bill for “religious freedom.”
“I’m a Christian and I don’t think I need that kind of legislation to practice my faith.”
The Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce has not taken a position on the bill, but one local business owner said the bill sends a discouraging message to young people in the state.
“We’re telling our young people that we don’t respect their opinions about social diversity,” said Bill Lewis, co-owner of T&B Marketing Solutions. “We’re telling our neighbors of different faiths, national origins, and sexual orientations that because of their identity their rights as citizens are second class in our state.”
The decline of the coal industry continues to weigh heavily on Raleigh County, and Lewis said the state must focus on policies and initiatives that promote consumer spending, tourism and diversification of the economy, which this bill does not do.
“There is literally no economic benefit to this bill. People will leave here, students will turn us down, and businesses will refuse to locate within our borders.”
Lewis further believes the legislation elevates legal privileges of one class of citizens over another. “It’s shameful and it’s not what this country is about.”
But another business owner, Don Priddy of Priddy’s in Sophia, said he sees the bill as furthering the protection of his First Amendment rights.
Priddy, a member of the Calvary Assembly of God, said if a customer were to place an order for an item not usually stocked, he would like to have the authority to deny the sale if it conflicted with his religious beliefs.
Like Jordan, Priddy said he believed the bill, if passed, would give him legal protections if he were to become involved in a lawsuit.
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A growing number of communities throughout the Mountain State have adopted additional protections against discrimination for all members who live there.
Ordinances have been passed in Athens, Charleston, Harpers Ferry, Huntington, Lewisburg, Martinsburg, Morgantown and Thurmond, adding protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Beckley’s Human Rights Commission proposed an amendment in October 2014 to the city ordinance, which would have included protection against employment and housing discrimination for those classes. After an outcry from religious leaders in the community, the council rejected a vote on the amendment the following month.
That summer, Human Rights Commissioners said they planned on redrafting the amendment to propose to council a second time, but no updated versions have been brought to the table.
Beckley Mayor Bill O’Brien said the city wants to see if the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is passed before considering local ordinances, as state law supersedes city code.
Full article: http://www.register-herald.com/news/raleigh-county-reacts-to-religious-freedom-restoration-act/article_25c702a7-ffd4-5682-a4ca-ea193562b4e7.html