MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Joe Mercurio remembers what it was like growing up in Berkeley County as a gay man.
“I grew up here and left here because I did not think this would be a good place to live because I am gay,” Mercurio said Thursday. He is originally from Marlowe. “I just want to make Martinsburg open and fair and for everyone to feel comfortable to stay here.”
Mercurio initiated amending the city’s Human Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected groups.
City Council members voted unanimously to approve the amendment at their regular meeting Thursday on its third and final reading. The council had unanimously voted to approve the first and second readings of the amendment at its January meeting.
Over the course of several meetings, the proposal had elicited much public comment both for and against it. Some of the comments were quite emotional. Some were quite angry.
Proponents of the proposed amendment said it would protect the civil rights of all people. Opponents said it would infringe on their religious rights.
The amendment “provides for equal opportunity in the areas of employment; public accommodations (meaning dining, lodging, retail and service businesses); and the sale, lease, rental and financing of housing accommodations is hereby declared to be a human right or civil right of all persons without regard to race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, blindness, handicap, or sexual orientation and gender identity.”
If someone believed they had been discriminated against in the areas of housing, employment or service in the city because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, they could file a civil suit in circuit court. The city would not be responsible for bringing the suit nor bringing any charges.
Mercurio said this was his first experience with city government. He applauded Mayor George Karos, the City Council members and staff for their support.
“I wanted to stand up for people, to help people who might be afraid to stand up for themselves,” he said was his reason for initiating the amendment. “It doesn’t impede anyone’s religious rights. I’m a Christian. We should follow the golden rule. I want to make Martinsburg as fair and safe as possible for everyone.”
Earlier in the day, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed the West Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act by a vote of 72-26. The purpose of the bill is to protect people’s religious rights.
Kin Sayre, the Martinsburg council’s attorney, said that the House bill would have some effect on the city’s ordinance.
“But the council can still pass the ordinance and declare its policy,” he said Thursday. “It won’t prohibit or override the city ordinance. It has some language in it dealing with deep religious beliefs as a defense.”
The House bill now goes to the state Senate for consideration.
Staff writer John McVey can be reached at 304-263-3381, ext. 128, or twitter.com/jmcveyJN.