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Equality: Human rights for gays

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- American morality has evolved enormously since the 1950s, when it was a felony to be gay and same-sex couples risked prison. In subsequent decades, tolerance grew. West Virginia revoked its "sodomy" law in the 1970s, and the U.S. Supreme Court voided the last such state laws in 2003.

Today, finally, gays are on the brink of gaining full human rights and acceptance as equal Americans.

In November's election, voters in three states -- Maine, Maryland and Washington -- approved same-sex marriage, making a total of nine states where it is legal, plus the District of Columbia. This week, Colorado's legislature legalized civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, as about 10 other states have done. The tide of equality is rising.

President Obama wants the Supreme Court to scuttle the Republican-passed Defense of Marriage Act, which limits wedlock to one man and one woman. Former President Bill Clinton, who originally signed DOMA into law in 1996, agrees with Obama. The high court is expected to rule on this issue by June.

Numerous states and cities have expanded their hate crimes laws to protect homosexuals from violent "gay-bashing" attacks -- and also expanded their human rights laws to protect gays from being fired from jobs or evicted from apartments, just because of their orientation. We're proud that Charleston's city council took both of those steps.

Today, fundamentalists and rural conservatives still try to punish and ostracize gays. Those groups wield great political power in Appalachia. That why West Virginia's Legislature has been slow to grant equality to homosexuals.

However, legislators currently are pondering House Bill 2865, the Employment and Housing Non-Discrimination Act, which would add gays to other minorities protected by the state Human Rights Act. This proposal has been endorsed by the United Mine Workers, the AFL-CIO and various progressive groups.

Three Charleston clergy wrote in Tuesday's Gazette that the law should pass. "Anti-discrimination laws were enacted because minorities cannot protect themselves alone," they said. "They need a community that is committed to equality and fairness, not just as a matter of principle, but as a matter of law."

Fairness West Virginia says a 2010 poll by Greenberg Quinlan found that 61 percent of West Virginians "favor protecting gay and lesbian people from discrimination in employment and housing."

Politically, West Virginia has become a conservative "red state." Will mountain prejudice continue to block equality to gays? Keep reading the news to see how H.B. 2865 fares in the 2013 session. The outcome will indicate whether the Mountain State is ready to join more tolerant regions.


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