West Virginia Legislature

CROWN Act, prohibiting racial discrimination based on hair, gets punted to Senate Finance after floor debate

MORGANTOWN – The resurrected CROWN Act came to the Senate floor Friday morning, after narrowly passing out of Judiciary the evening before, only to be swatted back to another committee – where it may die.

SB 496 aims to prohibit discrimination based on race that includes discrimination based on hair textures and protective hairstyles historically associated with a particular race, where the term protective hairstyles includes braids, locks, and twists.

After being read for the first time, Finance chair Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, moved to have the bill referred to his committee.

He said the bill carries significant fiscal implications and the requested fiscal notes haven’t been issued.

The state, he said, could see an increase in lawsuits spurred by the legislation, and the attorney general suspects it has problems and wants to review it. He later modified that comment, when pressed, and said the AG just wants to review it. While admitting he has no evidence that lawsuits will increase, he wants to see the fiscal notes.

“As Finance chair I’m very aware of things that bring risks to the general revenue,” he said. “I have like a 99% confidence that we have an increased expense to the state.”

Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, supported Tarr, saying witness testimony about incidents in schools indicates lawsuits will arise. And by adding another protected class to the Human Rights Act, “there is some education that needs to happen.”

Three attorneys in the Senate all disputed Tarr’s claim.

Judiciary chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan said the bill will in fact reduce lawsuits and state expenses. Racial discrimination is already illegal, and this bill clarifies that discrimination based on hair is a form of racial discrimination. “It will require fewer cases, not more if we pass this bill.”

He pointed out that the exact same bill passed the Senate 32-2 in 2020. (The two votes against came from Tarr and Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, who again opposed the bill Thursday in Judiciary.)

Given that Crossover Day – when bills have to leave their house of origin and go to the other side – comes Wednesday, “I believe it is unnecessary and imprudent this late in the session” to send it to finance.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, said Tarr and his supporters make the invalid assumption that West Virginians are racist.

And Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, contradicted Rucker, saying the bill doesn’t create a new protected class, because it falls under racial discrimination.

Lead sponsor Sen. Mike Caputo. D-Marion, listed some of the states that have already passed this legislation and have stated they’ve seen no fiscal impact – including Alaska, Oregon and Tennessee.

The vote to send it to Finance was 22-12, with nine Republicans and all three Democrats voting to keep it before the full Senate. Locally, Sens. Charles Clements, Mike Oliverio, Randy Smith and Jay Taylor all voted to commit it to Finance. Caputo and Sen. Mike Maroney voted no. President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, was among those in the majority.

The 2020 bill, after passing out of the Senate, died in House Judiciary. A House floor effort to discharge it from committee to have the full body consider it failed.

Nothing in SB 496 calls the bill the CROWN Act, but this has been the name of some of the House versions, and of legislation in other states. CROWN stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.

Email: dbeard@dominionpost.com