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Eagle editorial: License to discriminate

  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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Though officially “concerning religious freedoms with respect to marriage,” House Bill 2453 sure looks like a license for governmental employees as well as businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples. Kansas doesn’t need such mean-spirited legislation, which even opponents note is only meaningful if the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is repealed or overturned.

The bill aims to protect individuals and religious entities from civil lawsuits or other official trouble because of their refusal of service based on “sincerely held religious beliefs” regarding “sex or gender.” One section exempts individuals as well as religious entities from being required by a governmental entity to “treat any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement as valid.”

The jumbled understanding of the bill evident during Thursday’s House committee hearing should have slowed its progress in the Legislature, but didn’t. As the full House considers it Tuesday, lawmakers should be especially wary of spelling out that government workers have such a right to refuse service.

The bill is written both so broadly and specifically – with especially troubling references to “counseling, adoption, foster care” and “employment benefits” – that it would sow confusion at best.

At worst, it would put Kansas on record as valuing some religious beliefs so highly as to justify intolerant and discriminatory treatment of same-sex couples – including those lawfully wed in other states and whose marriages are recognized by the federal government.

The bill directs governments and other nonreligious entities to promptly find another employee to provide the service or otherwise ensure it is provided “if it can be done without undue hardship to the employer.”

But as the Kansas Equality Coalition argues, “any government agency or department can claim ‘undue hardship’ in finding an alternative to providing service, and turn taxpaying Kansans with valid marriages away.”

The proposal already has drawn more regrettable attention to Kansas, including a Time.com article this week headlined “Kansas Wants to Make Sure Gay Couples Aren’t Guaranteed Wedding Cake.” The article pointed to more than half a dozen bills across the country this year dealing with refusal of services for same-sex couples – no doubt in reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last summer overturning key parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Socially conservative Kansas legislators also likely are unsettled by recent rulings by federal judges striking down gay-marriage bans in Oklahoma and Utah, which, like Kansas, come under the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

But Kansas should not be rushing to pass this bill, which is not the “broad protection of religious exercise” it claims to be.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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