As members of the Charleston City Council, we constantly strive to make Charleston a better place to live, work and raise a family. The City wants to attract young, talented professionals who are looking for a place to put down roots. We promote our city to visitors who might come to enjoy our shops, restaurants, hotels and our vibrant arts scene. We seek out groups who might bring their convention business to our soon-to-be renovated Civic Center. Charleston doesn’t just talk the talk about attracting visitors and young, professional residents — we walk the walk with investments of public and private money. We will invest $100 million in the Civic Center project alone!
For these reasons, it’s important to Charleston — and to other cities in West Virginia — that our state legislators reject HB 4012, or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
This bill, ostensibly introduced to protect religious freedoms, has actually been used around the country as a means to flout laws, invalidate local anti-discrimination ordinances, and to allow discrimination against otherwise protected classes of people. We don’t like this bill because we don’t like any bill that effectively codifies discrimination or inequality.
But, further, as council members, we don’t like this bill because it’s bad for Charleston’s economy.
What we have consistently found through projects like Vision 2030 and Imagine Charleston is that young people are looking for places to live and visit that promote diversity and inclusion. Young and old alike are interested in improved infrastructure, innovation, recreation opportunities, public health and safety, and access to a good education.
What we don’t hear very often in surveys or from our constituents is that they feel concerned for their religious liberty or that they want to be able to deny services to people who have beliefs different from theirs.
With so many public dollars spent in West Virginia to encourage tourism, we shuddered when we heard the AP report that estimates Indianapolis’s lost convention and visitors’ revenue at $60M — a direct result of the 2015 RFRA law signed by Gov. Mike Pence. If we incur the same pushback, Charleston Civic Center contractors may as well put down their hammers until the Legislature decides that it truly wants to stop West Virginia’s backward slide.
Alarmingly, West Virginia’s proposed HB 4012 is more stringent than Indiana’s bill and would open up businesses and employers to lawsuits while at the same time making it more difficult for those businesses to recruit and retain employees.
If we really want West Virginia to be open for business, then we would do well to remember that the vast majority of Fortune 500 companies have non-discrimination policies in place. And, if we really want to retain and attract the best and the brightest workers, then our legislators need to stop trying to run bills that achieve the exact opposite.
Public officials must stop wasting time on legislation that moves West Virginia in the wrong direction. In 2016, we must recognize that what’s good for all of us as people — equality, tolerance, compassion, and inclusion — is also what’s best for our economy.
This commentary was submitted by Charleston City Council members Karan Ireland, Rebecca Ceperley, Tom Lane, Andy Richardson, Keeley Steele, Robert Reishman, Mary Jean Davis, Ed Talkington and Mary Beth Hoover. (This was originally published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on January 29, 2016.)
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