On November 8th, Mountaineers will vote for their members of the US House of Representatives and the State Legislature. Nestled under the legislative races are four amendments to the West Virginia Constitution. One of these is Amendment 3: Incorporation of Churches or Religious Denominations Amendment. This Amendment would allow churches or religious denominations to register as corporations. This amendment does not change existing tax law or place any unnecessary regulations on West Virginia churches. This is simply offering an option to religious communities that is available in 49 other states.
On February 10, 2021, Senators Charles Trump (R – Morgan, 15) and Rollan Roberts (R – Raleigh, 09) introduced Senate Joint Resolution 4, which passed in the West Virginia Senate unanimously with two members absent and 94-4 in the House of Delegates. This amendment was introduced to remove a provision of the West Virginia Constitution that was inherited in 1872 from Virginia’s Constitution. Virginia’s prohibition was struck in 2002 by a federal court in the case Falwell v. Miller and was formally removed from the Virginia Constitution in 2006.
West Virginia is the last state that prohibits religious incorporation. Policymakers originally wrote this provision back when incorporation was a special provision granted by the government. Currently, incorporation of a West Virginia nonprofit or corporation is governed by Chapter 31E. West Virginia Nonprofit Corporation Act. Incorporation would allow for churches and religious denominations to manage assets like other nonprofit organizations and businesses.
Arguments in Support of Amendment 3
Supporters of Amendment 3 argue that this amendment will bring West Virginia in line with the rest of the nation when it comes to the treatment of churches. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Delegate Moore Capito (R – Kanawha, 35) said, “What we have now is the opportunity for churches and houses of worship to incorporate, which is pretty standard procedure across the country, quite frankly… so I think we’re just synching up there.”
The House Judiciary Committee Minority Chairman Delegate Chad Lovejoy (D – Cabell, 17) said, “It, frankly, is a little easier to operate under a traditional corporate sense than it is under this kind of antiquated Board of Trustees management… so I don’t think it has anything to do with taxes. It has nothing to do with politics, frankly. I think that it does make things a little easier to manage religious institutions.”
The ACLU of West Virginia has come out in support of the amendment. They said, “we believe that excluding religious bodies from incorporating unconstitutionally treats religious organizations differently than non-religious entities.” The ACLU of Virginia is one of the organizations responsible for the overturning of Virginia’s ban.
Arguments in Opposition to Amendment 3
At the time of writing this piece, no lawmakers or organizations in West Virginia have publicly come out against this amendment.
The polls open on November 8th. It is imperative that West Virginians make an informed decision about these amendments. You can read the full text of the amendments on the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Website.
Andrew Bambrick is the Education Outreach Coordinator for the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.