TOPEKA — Gay-rights advocates lashed out at the Kansas House’s leading Democrat on Wednesday, saying he showed only tepid opposition to a bill that would give people the right, based on their religious beliefs, to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, who’s also running for governor, voted against the measure, which the House passed 72-49 on Wednesday.
HB2453 would prohibit government sanctions or anti-discrimination lawsuits over faith-based refusals to recognize same-sex unions or to provide goods, services, accommodations or employment benefits to such couples.
Supporters argued that the bill would protect the rights of Kansans to adhere to their religious beliefs even if federal courts strike down the state constitution’s ban on same-sex unions.
Davis issued a statement after a House debate Tuesday saying the bill “goes out of its way to ignore the critical challenges families are facing right now.” The statement did not mention the bill’s contents or deal with critics’ main contention that the measure could encourage widespread discrimination against gays and lesbians.
“Every day we spend on issues like this is one day less this Legislature and Governor has to tackle the real, growing crises at hand,” Davis said in the statement.
Davis is the presumed Democratic challenger this year to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who hasn’t formally endorsed the bill but has said he believes religious freedoms need to be protected. Davis is trying to woo unaffiliated voters and disaffected GOP moderates by emphasizing economic issues and education funding.
Gay-rights advocates have become an increasing visible constituency within the Kansas Democratic Party over the past decade, particularly as the GOP has moved farther right on social issues.
On Wednesday, Equality Kansas State Chairwoman Sandra Meade decried Davis’ response as a “blatant attempt to maintain second-class citizen status” for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Kansans.
“What is most disappointing about the House vote to pass this bill isn’t the vote of the conservatives who we know must appease their extremist base, but the lack of public action to oppose or amend the bill by those legislators who claim they sincerely oppose it,” Meade said in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that discrimination against LGBT Kansans is seen as a distraction for the Democratic leadership, rather than a call to action.”
Davis declined to respond to the statement.
Supporters of the bill contend that scenarios for widespread discrimination are far-fetched. They say the bill is narrowly tailored to protect florists and bakers who don’t want to supply flowers or cakes for gay weddings or churches that want to refuse the use of their sanctuaries by gay couples. Such conflicts have arisen in other states, including Oregon and Colorado. Supporters of the bill haven’t cited any Kansas examples.
“While homosexual marriage is not inevitable here in Kansas, this legislation would protect the rights of individuals, businesses, religious institutions and churches with sincerely held religious beliefs should subsequent court cases strike down the Kansas Marriage Amendment,” said Robert Noland, executive director of the Kansas Family Policy Council, which opposes gay marriage.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where it will be considered in the Judiciary Committee.
“A lot of questions have been raised regarding the actual impact of the bill. Our Senate Judiciary Committee will closely examine the language to ensure it is narrowly focused while defending Kansans’ religious freedoms,” Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said in an e-mail.
Contributing: Bryan Lowry of The Eagle