Proponents say the Preservation of Religious Freedom Act would protect Kansans’ right to practice their religion. Opponents see it as an open door to discrimination and lawsuits.
The bill, HB 2260, will have a hearing before the state House Judiciary Committee this morning. It would prohibit state institutions from curtailing or denying a person’s exercise of religion, unless government has a compelling reason to do so.
It also would allow people to sue state institutions and local governments for infringing on their religious freedom.
Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, who introduced the bill, said it seeks to make sure Kansans’ religious beliefs are respected.
“I think the need for the bill has become even more apparent based on some of the things that have happened on the federal level based on the health care issue,” he said.
President Obama last week said religious organizations must pay for free birth control for workers, then backed off, saying instead that insurance companies should provide the coverage.
Kinzer also cited a case in which the state refused to pay for a liver transplant for Mary Stinemetz, a Jehovah’s Witness whose religion prohibited her from receiving a blood transfusion. Stinemetz, who was on Medicaid, sought to have the transplant done in Nebraska, which had the facilities to perform bloodless transplants. The state Court of Appeals ruled in her favor last spring.
But Thomas Witt, president of the Kansas Equality Commission, said the bill would allow anyone with a religious objection to those of different sexual orientations to sue any government that had a policy prohibiting against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“This bill is a ticking time bomb that is about to be dumped into the laps of every city, county, community college, and university in the state and it is going to explode in their laps on July first,” Witt said.
All Board of Regents universities, some school districts and some local governments have policies making discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal. The city of Wichita does not have such an ordinance; the Wichita chapter of the Kansas Equality Coalition plans to appear before the Wichita City Council today seeking one. The city does say it will not discriminate based on sexual orientation when it comes to hiring or employee interactions.
The bill states that a person cannot use religious freedom as an excuse to violate the Kansas Act Against Discrimination, which covers discrimination based on race, sex, ancestry, color and national origin, but not sexual orientation.
Witt said the bill would essentially nullify local anti-discrimination laws and policies.
But Kinzer said such concerns are far from the actual purpose of the bill. “There is an attempt to try to take a very straightforward, commonsense piece of legislation, that adopts a very traditional view of free exercise, and try to use it for a political purpose that is really detached from the bill,” he said.
Kinzer also said the bill would work to restore a federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, to the state level.
The Supreme Court had ruled in 1997 that the law applied only at the federal level. That law has similar language to the current bill.
Kinzer introduced the bill last year, and it was tabled in the House Judiciary Committee.