A bill that would give public and private employees the right to refuse service based on their religious beliefs about marriage won initial approval in the Kansas House on Tuesday.
The vote was 72-42. A final vote set for Wednesday would send House Bill 2453 to the Senate.
Republican supporters say the bill is designed to protect religious liberty. Opponents say it targets same-sex couples and sanctions discrimination by government employees.
The bill was drafted in response to federal court rulings that overturned same-sex marriage bans in Utah and Oklahoma.
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Rep. Charles Macheers, R-Shawnee, said on the House floor that his bill prevents discrimination.
“Discrimination is horrible. It’s hurtful … It has no place in civilized society, and that’s precisely why we’re moving this bill,” he said. “There have been times throughout history where people have been persecuted for their religious beliefs because they were unpopular. This bill provides a shield of protection for that.”
Macheers told an anecdote about a florist in Washington who was sued for refusing to provide flowers for a gay wedding. He said his bill would protect business owners from similar civil claims.
The bill covers private and public employees. Government agencies would still be required to provide services, but individual clerks could refuse to serve same-sex couples based on their religious beliefs on marriage.
Businesses would still provide services, provided it was not unduly burdensome to do so.
Thomas Witt, spokesman, for Equality Kansas, said proponents of the bill have misrepresented it. Existing laws would protect Kansas businesses from civil lawsuits if same-sex marriage became legal tomorrow, he said.
The bill’s true purpose is to enable discrimination by government employees, Witt said.
“Every single rural county in this state has same-sex couples. Government officials in those counties are going to be able to turn them away from services that they deserve as taxpayers,” he said.
Rep. Don Hill, R-Emporia, introduced an amendment to strike government employees from the bill, explaining that many rural counties have a limited number of employees. That failed to pass.
Witt said he was disappointed that the Democratic Caucus did not speak up in favor of Hill’s amendment.
In general, Democrats shied away from discussing the impact of the bill on same-sex couples. Instead, they focused their remarks on how the bill would hurt the “Kansas brand” and on how members of the business community had expressed concern.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, the likely Democratic challenger to Gov. Sam Brownback, did not address the bill on the House floor. In a written statement issued afterward, he made no mention of marriage or same-sex couples. Instead, he contended the Legislature should be tackling more pressing economic issues.
“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.
Republicans say the bill does not target gay people. The wording of the bill would allow someone with a “sincerely held” religious belief against heterosexual marriage to deny service to a straight couple, they say.
Rep. Mark Kahrs, R-Wichita, said the bill would protect a lesbian photographer who wanted to refuse to work for a Catholic wedding based on the church’s stance against same-sex marriage.
Macheers said the bill puts Kansas “on the right side of history.”
Rep. Barbara Bollier, R-Mission Hills, one of a handful of Republicans to break from her party, countered that notion after the vote. “I do not believe it is ever on the right side of history to be allowed to discriminate against people. Enough said.”
The claim that religious Kansans are in danger of discrimination did not track with Rep. Louis Ruiz, D-Kansas City. Ruiz, who is Latino, said that he has faced discrimination because of the color of his skin. On the House floor, he told his colleagues the bill sanctions discrimination “whether we want to admit that or not.”
“When you look at the demographics of people here, some people don’t know what discrimination is because they’ve never experienced it,” Ruiz said later.
Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco, a member of the committee that advanced the bill last week, dismissed a comparison to a hypothetical bill that would allow someone to discriminate against interracial couples based on religious beliefs.
Race is a protected class under discrimination laws, Couture-Lovelady said. Sexual orientation is not.
The vote comes a day after the U.S. Justice Department formally extended equal protection to same-sex married couples within the federal court and prison system. The policy grants same-sex couples protections and privileges like the ability to file for bankruptcy jointly.
Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, chairman of the Federal and State Affairs Committee, said the two policies should not conflict. Marriages are performed at state courthouses, not federal ones, so it is unlikely that the two policies will collide, he said.
Witt said the policies won’t directly conflict, but that they highlight a contrast.
“The federal government is making sure that the federal laws are followed. The state government is hell-bent on making sure federal law does not apply in Kansas,” Witt said.
Republican proponents have repeatedly said that many states that allow same-sex marriages have protections for religious freedom on the books.
Holly Weatherford, spokeswoman for the Kansas chapter of the ACLU, said the Kansas bill goes far beyond protections in other states. “Kansas would be the first state to legalize discrimination on the part of employees—government employees,” she said.
She added the state’s laws already provide adequate protections for religious institutions.