Business mounts opposition to W.Va. religious exemption bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia is considering a bill that opponents fear could not only act as a cover for discrimination against gays but also negatively impact the state’s fragile economy.

Companies like AT&T and Dow Chemical have already expressed concerns about West Virginia’s proposal. A top West Virginia University athletics official feared that the NCAA may opt against awarding college sports tournament sites to the state because of it.

West Virginia’s bill would let a person challenge a governmental body in court that has made him or her follow a particular state or local law, or has taken some other action, that goes counter to a deeply held religious belief. The bill says the government would need a compelling interest to make people abide by government action that encroaches on their religious expression.

“If somebody comes into a bakery and they wanted a cake with ISIS on it, it gives (the bakery) a right to say no,” said Del. Rupie Phillips, D-Logan.

However, opponents say a similar law in Indiana cost the state tens of millions of dollars. According to the tourism group Visit Indy, a dozen groups said the law was a reason why they decided not to hold conventions in Indianapolis, causing a potential loss of $60 million. The NCAA, the gamer convention GenCon and other business interests openly raised the possibility of moving. Amid the backlash, lawmakers hastily changed the law.

Opponents to West Virginia’s version worry it will sanction discrimination by letting people claim in court that they can ignore the law because of a personal religious belief. That could lead to exemptions from bans in eight cities on housing and employment discrimination against gay and transgender people.

Some well-known businesses in the state are expressing deep concerns about the measure. They include AT&T, Dow Chemical Co., West Virginia American Water, Charleston and Morgantown chambers of commerce; the visitors bureau in Huntington; and the Marriott and the Embassy Suites in Charleston.

“Legislation that would permit discrimination against any of our employees or customers conflicts with our core values,” said AT&T spokesman Daniel Langan.

For West Virginia’s newly-minted GOP leadership, the bill presents an important election-year decision.

The House of Delegates passed the legislation last week, sending it to the Senate, where President Bill Cole tops the ballot as the lead Republican candidate for governor.

In his campaign, Cole has talked about improving the economy and driving in business in a state with one of the country’s highest unemployment rates. He has not taken a stance on the bill, but he acknowledged it would be a “tough one.”

His House counterpart, Republican Speaker Tim Armstead, has sided with social conservatives by staunchly defending the measure.

In the open governor’s race, every Democrat — Jim Justice, Booth Goodwin and Jeff Kessler — has come out in opposition.

The bill resembles laws in 21 states that are largely modeled off existing federal law. However, the newer state laws have garnered attention as states began allowing gay marriage and the Supreme Court ultimately legalized it nationwide.

In 2014, Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a religious exemptions bill, saying it could “divide Arizona in ways we could not even imagine and no one would ever want.” Arkansas likewise retreated by limiting its own version last year. Walmart, the state’s largest private employer, called for the rewrite.

Doctor lobby groups have opposed the bill, saying it could result in the denial of contraception health care for women and vaccinations for children.

In college athletics, WVU regularly submits bids to host NCAA Tournament preliminary rounds for men’s and women’s soccer, women’s gymnastics, and women’s basketball. And the NCAA is cautious about awarding bids to states with “discriminatory legislation on the books,” Terri Howes, WVU’s senior associate athletics director for sport administration, wrote in an email to lawmakers. The AP obtained the email through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Smaller West Virginia colleges looking to host NCAA events could also be affected, Howes wrote.

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