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Skinner doesn’t want watered-down sexual orientation protection

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, on Wednesday asked that the House not pursue legislation this session to add sexual orientation to the protected categories in West Virginia's Human Rights Act (HB2856), saying the only way the bill could pass the House is if it were watered-down to the point of ineffectiveness.

"Unfortunately, I know there are many people in this chamber who support the bill but who will not vote for it," said Skinner, the first openly gay member of the Legislature.

"Please tell me why gay people should continue to be discriminated against in this state?" he asked colleagues in a speech on the House floor.

The bill, which would have to be approved by two House committees by Friday in order to have a chance of passage this session, would have added sexual orientation to those protected by the Human Rights Act. Currently, the law prohibits discrimination in employment or housing opportunities on the basis of race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, blindness, disability or familial status.

Skinner said it is clear that a majority of West Virginians support the bill, but suggested there are portions of the state where intolerance remains high.

He read a reader's commentary published recently in the Lincoln Journal, which included several racial and ethnic slurs and a gay slur.

Afterward, Skinner said chances for passage of the bill this session are very faint, particularly since the state Senate is waiting for the House to act on the bill.

"I thought it was not in the best interest of these folks to run this bill," he said of the potential for a watered-down version of the legislation.

"I will remind you the struggle continues, from Selma to Stonewall," Skinner told colleagues, adding, "We will get there. Not today, though."

Also during the House floor session Wednesday:

• Legislation to make failure to wear a seat belt a primary traffic offense (HB2108) advanced to passage stage Thursday. However, House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said it is not certain if there are enough votes to pass the bill.

"It's iffy," he said. "We're just going to flip the coin and let the board light up."

Seat belt violations are a secondary offense, meaning citations can be issued only after an officer has stopped a driver for a separate traffic offense. This is the first time the primary enforcement bill has reached the House floor.

• Delegates passed 98-0 and sent to the Senate a bill to allow the state's Amber Alert system to be activated in cases of missing children (HB2453). Currently, the alert system can be activated only in instances when it is believed a child has been abducted.

The bill is named Skylar's Law, for Skylar Neece, a Monongalia County teenager who was abducted and later found dead.

Delegate Charlene Marshall, D-Monongalia, noted that Neece had been a House page in 2005, and said it was "simply unacceptable" there was no Amber Alert when she was abducted because she was initially believed to be a runaway.

"The first 24 hours that a child is missing is very, very important," Marshall said of the legislation.

• Delegates passed 92-5 and sent to the Senate a bill to allow the House speaker or Senate president to designate groups of legislators to serve as job-creation work groups to look at issues to promote economic development and recruit new businesses to the state (HB3013).

Some Republicans spoke against the measure, saying there is no need for further study of issues hindering job growth in the state. However, Minority Leader Tim Armstead and Delegate Patrick Lane, both R-Kanawha, spoke in favor of the bill.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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