- Associated Press - Thursday, February 11, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Amid growing opposition from the business community, West Virginia’s Republican-led House of Delegates cleared a bill Thursday that proponents say would ensure freedom of religious expression and opponents say would sanction discrimination.

In a 72-26 vote, delegates approved the measure that would let people cite religious objections to state actions in certain court proceedings.

The bill resembles laws in 21 states that are largely modeled off existing federal law. However, newer laws have garnered attention after the Supreme Court ruled to legalize gay marriage.

The most high-profile example has been Indiana, which may have lost out on $60 million from groups that decided not to hold conventions in Indianapolis because of a similar law, according to the tourism group Visit Indy.

On Thursday, more than a dozen Democrats voted with the Republican majority, while a handful of Republicans opposed it.

The proposal moves to the Senate, where Republican Senate President Bill Cole hasn’t taken a position on it.

“That’s going to be a tough one,” Cole told reporters Monday. “There’s no question.”

Proponents said the bill protects freedoms to express religious beliefs, unless there’s a compelling state interest to restrict them. They said it essentially doesn’t change how the law currently works in West Virginia and doesn’t go as far as the Indiana law did.

“This bill will, if not eliminate, at least reduce the chilling effect of the way our society has become so paranoid about expressing the devotion that we feel to what is the foundation of this nation, and that’s religion,” said Del. John Shott, R-Mercer.

Opponents say the bill sanctions discrimination - particularly targeting gay marriage - and could put seven cities’ nondiscrimination policies for gay and transgender people in jeopardy. The state doesn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity in its employment and housing protections, so some cities have instituted their own.

They also pointed to backlash in Indiana, which ultimately scaled back its law after national scrutiny.

“We can forget about being open for business,” said Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio. “We’re open for bigotry after today.”

Meanwhile, the list of business groups publicly expressing concerns about the bill continues to grow. They include AT&T; Dow Chemical Company; West Virginia American Water; chambers of commerce for Charleston, Huntington and Morgantown; and the Marriott and the Embassy Suites in Charleston.

“Dow has proudly called the U.S. home for the past 118 years, and on behalf of the more than 25,000 Dow women and men nationwide, we support full inclusion of our LGBT colleagues,” said Kevin Kolevar, Dow Chemical vice president for government affairs and public policy. “We should be focusing on policies that make West Virginia more competitive and economically sound, instead of taking actions that divide us.”

Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said he “would have to consider a veto” if the bill passes, citing the state’s tepid economy and Indiana’s experience.

“That should have sent a signal to West Virginia of what the consequences may be if you pass a divisive bill like that,” Tomblin told The Associated Press.

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