CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A group representing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender West Virginians urged state lawmakers Tuesday to pass legislation that would add sexual orientation to the list of protections under the state's Human Rights Act.
"All West Virginians deserve to be treated fairly by the laws of their own state regardless of sexual orientation," said Coy Flowers, president of Fairness West Virginia, a statewide civil rights advocacy group. "This is a common sense update to existing law."
The West Virginia Senate has twice passed the bill in recent years, but the House has rejected the legislation.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, seemed optimistic that the bill would pass both chambers this year and be signed into law. He plans to introduce the legislation later this week.
"We will pass a bill that grants all men and women … equal opportunity to prosper in this state," Kessler said to a crowd of about 100 people at the state Capitol Tuesday morning. "I believe, in West Virginia, every day should be 'Fairness Day.'"
Many of the bill's supporters held up signs saying, "Hard work doesn't discriminate."
Flowers said West Virginia law allows employers to fire workers based on sexual orientation. Landlords also can evict tenants for the same reason, he said.
Flowers said the "Employment and Housing Discrimination Act" would add sexual orientation to the state's human rights law, which already prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, disability and gender.
Flowers said 100 businesses – including Appalachian Power, Frontier Communications, West Virginia American Water and Charleston Area Medical Center – support fair treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers. Twenty-six of West Virginia's 30 largest companies already have policies that prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Jeremy Dys, who heads a conservative group that opposes adding sexual orientation to the state Human Rights Act, said Tuesday that there's a "fracturing of support" for Kessler's proposed bill in the House and Senate. Dys predicted the revision would unfairly burden West Virginia businesses.
"Frankly, this [proposal] should not be a priority now, especially in these tough economic times," said Dys, president of the Family Policy Council of West Virginia. "Businesses in this economy can't afford to spend money on lawsuits if employees brought a suit alleging discrimination."
About 57,000 West Virginians identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, Flowers said.
"They want the same opportunity as anyone else to contribute to this state," he said.
Also Tuesday, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant announced that her office has adopted a non-discrimination policy.Reach Eric Eyre at erice...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.