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Kansas Senate leaders kill controversial religious freedom bill

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, at 7:01 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014, at 5:58 p.m.

A controversial religious freedom bill passed by the Kansas House will never make it to the Senate floor or even be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

On Tuesday, Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, officially closed the door on House Bill 2453, which gained international attention and inspired a Twitter hash tag.

“We’re not going to work the bill,” he said. “House Bill 2453 is kaput.”

However, he said, a Senate committee will explore the issue of religious liberty in hearings next month.

The bill was taken up as a response to a string of federal court rulings overturning same-sex marriage bans, including in the 10th Circuit, of which Kansas is part. Proponents said the bill was designed to provide protection from lawsuits for small-business owners who refused to offer services for same-sex weddings on religious grounds.

But the bill extended to public as well as private employees, and critics accused it of being discriminatory.

During the March hearings about religious liberty, the Judiciary Committee will revisit laws now on the books and hear testimony from all points of view, said King, who chairs the committee.

“I don’t come into this with any preconceived notions,” he said.

If the committee does produce legislation, he promised it would have a “razor sharp focus.” Critics, including the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said the House bill was too broad.

King said the hearings offer a fresh start.

Thomas Witt, spokesman for Equality Kansas, the LGBT-rights organization that spearheaded opposition efforts, was reluctant to declare victory yet.

“That bill number. Yea,” Witt said when asked to respond to news of the bill’s demise.

“I think in the minds of the proponents, this is very much not a dead issue,” Witt said.

He said he is looking forward to the March hearings. “I think it’s going to be an excellent opportunity to talk about how LGBT equality does intersect with religious liberty in Kansas.”

Witt said he expected the Senate hearings to be less acrimonious than the House debates.

The legislation was drafted by the American Religious Freedom Program, based in Washington. Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, brought it to the Statehouse and passed it along to Rep. Charles Macheers, R-Shawnee, to sponsor.

Kinzer could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening. He has repeatedly said the bill was not intended to discriminate.

“What I think it’s really important for people to understand is that the core thing that we’re trying to achieve here is that sincere and thoughtful people disagree on the marriage issue,” Kinzer said Friday after Senate leadership expressed reservations about the bill.

“We simply want to make sure the government doesn’t use punitive measures to punish anyone on either side of that issue.”

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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