Two Republican state senators scheduled to speak at a gay rights rally at the state Capitol Monday were no-shows.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and Sen. Daniel Hall, R-Wyoming, snubbed a press conference put on by Fairness West Virginia, a group that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender West Virginians, said Andrew Schneider, the organization's executive director.
"We had confirmed them as speakers at our press conference, then we heard at the last minute they backed out, Schneider said. "It's very disappointing.
Jackson and Hall said they had to attend a Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee meeting at which members voted to repeal a 2009 law that requires power companies to use fuels other than coal to generate a portion of their electricity. Hall serves on the committee. Carmichael does not, but he said he wanted to be there to ensure that the repeal passed.
Hall said he had every intention of speaking at the Fairness West Virginia event. Before the press conference started, Hall said, he asked to move up his scheduled speaking slot so he could talk earlier and still attend the energy committee meeting.
"I did not blow it off, Hall said. "I had prepared remarks. I fully intended to speak.
Carmichael said he also planned to be there, but the committee meeting was a priority, he said.
"They shouldn't feel offended, Carmichael said. "In fact, the people of West Virginia should be offended if I miss a committee meeting to go to a press conference.
At the rally, Fairness West Virginia supporters asked state lawmakers to pass legislation that would add sexual orientation to the list of protections under the state's Human Rights Act.
The West Virginia Senate has twice passed the non-discrimination bill in recent years, but the House has rejected the legislation. Democrats controlled both houses those years. Republicans took control of the Senate and House of Delegates after the November election, and the bill isn't expected to gain traction this year.
Before the rally, Fairness West Virginia distributed a press release, promising a "bipartisan delegation of distinguished speakers from both the Senate and House, but only Democratic state lawmakers showed up.
One of the first speakers, Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, sounded as if he expected his GOP colleagues to follow.
"I'm happy to hear the Republican majority is willing to be represented here today, said Kessler, who didn't know at the time that Hall and Carmichael were no-shows.
Hall was scheduled to be the fourth speaker at Fairness West Virginia's "Lobby Day rally, while Carmichael was supposed to be the sixth speaker, according to the release.
"I was going to be there to allow input to our [Republican] leadership team and to say, What are your concerns? Make your case,' said Carmichael, who plans to oppose the non-discrimination legislation. "I wasn't trying to disrespect them in any way, shape or form. We just had legislative business, which is what we were elected to do.
Hall, who would not take a position on Fairness West Virginia's proposed legislation, said he was "100 percent against any discrimination.
"If our agenda is about jobs and growth, we need to attract the best and the brightest from around the country & and doing that in an open and honest society, not one of bigotry and discrimination, Hall said.
Schneider said West Virginia Republicans missed an opportunity Monday to show they had a "big tent.
"The fact that these Republicans backed out at the last minute is not good, in my view, for the Republican Party, he said. "Our non-discrimination campaign is going to make West Virginia a better place to attract business. That ought to be a platform Republicans sign on to.
Democrats who spoke at Monday's rally echoed Schneider's comments that anti-discrimination laws would help to recruit businesses to West Virginia.
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant noted that West Virginia was one of only six states that didn't have an Apple retail store. In October, Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed he is gay.
"How would we justify telling him we allow gays to be discriminated against in our state? Tennant asked.
West Virginia law allows employers to fire workers based on sexual orientation, according to Fairness West Virginia. Landlords also can evict tenants for the same reason, the group said.
Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, West Virginia's only openly gay legislator, said it might be more feasible - now that Republicans control the House and Senate - to pass legislation that outlaws discrimination against state employees based on sexual orientation.
"It's something that's reasonable and doesn't interfere with all the private businesses, which seems to be the big concern & Skinner said. "We need to figure out how to work smarter and better with the folks here in Charleston.
Reach Eric Eyre at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.
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