CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The House of Delegates today passed House Bill 4012, the West Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act (WV RFRA), with a 72-26 vote.
The bill is modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and laws that have been adopted by more than 20 other states.
“Religious freedom is a basic human right, and a vital Constitutional right, that deserves protection under West Virginia law,” said House Majority Whip John D. O’Neal IV, R-Raleigh, who is the lead sponsor of the bill. “Every West Virginian should be free to live and work according to their faith without fear of being punished by government.”
The WV RFRA re-establishes a balancing test for resolving religious freedom cases that was removed by federal court rulings. This four-part test would be used by state courts to determine if government has a compelling interest to infringe on an individual’s sincerely held religious beliefs.
“Religious freedom is a fundamental right under the First Amendment of our Constitution,” said House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, who is also co-sponsoring the legislation. “This bill will give state courts a balancing test that guides judges in considering cases alleging that the action of a governmental body has violated a citizen’s deeply held religious belief. In making such a determination, this legislation will require that such court take every West Virginia citizen’s rights and freedom seriously.
“It is unfortunate that opponents of this legislation have tried to distort its terms and intent,” Speaker Armstead said. “The legislation simply reinstates a legal process that was in place within our constitutional laws for many decades but has been eroded. Let’s be absolutely clear – this bill neither encourages nor condones discrimination.”
Under the bill, if a person attempts to defend in court their religious beliefs against government action, a judge would use the following questions to evaluate the merits of the case: 1.) Does a person have a sincerely held religious belief? 2.) Has that belief been substantially burdened by government? 3.) Does the government have a compelling interest to substantially burden that belief? 4.) Has government exhausted all other means to achieve its goals without infringing on that belief, and is the action the least restrictive of that citizen’s religious beliefs?
The bill does not create a new type of cause-of-action in state courts. Individuals already can turn to the courts if they feel government has infringed their religious rights. This legislation simply provides guidance to the courts as to the legal test they should use in balancing whether the government has a compelling interest to burden someone’s free exercise of their religious beliefs.
The WV RFRA is designed to be defensive in nature, and applies only to government infringement on religious freedom. It does not intrude into private sector relations, and does not create any new cause of action for frivolous lawsuits. It does not pre-determine any outcomes, but instead provides guidelines to use in cases involving conflicts between government action and citizens’ religious beliefs.
“No West Virginian should be left defenseless when a government attempts to force them into violating their deeply-held beliefs,” said House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan. “This law will simply guarantee our citizens will have a fair hearing in court if they believe the government has gone too far.”
The four-part strict scrutiny balancing test laid out in this bill is the same standard courts used to evaluate religious freedom questions until 1990. In that year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that weakened the standard of review for these cases. As a response, Congress overwhelmingly passed the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that this federal law did not apply to states, which led to states passing their own version of the bill.
In addition to O’Neal and Armstead, the bill is co-sponsored by Delegates Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay; Rick Moye, D-Raleigh; Tom Fast, R-Fayette; Allen Evans, R-Grant; Mike Azinger, R-Wood; Terry Waxman, R-Harrison; Roger Romine, R-Tyler; Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire; and Rupie Phillips, D-Logan.
The bill will now go to the Senate for further consideration.