Kansas Senate leaders have declared controversial House Bill 2453 dead. But activists on both sides continue to debate its purpose and push their views.
Many Kansans received voicemails last week from the Kansas Family Policy Council, a Wichita-based organization, urging them to thank their representative who voted yes on the bill, which would have provided protection from lawsuits for public and private employees who refused service to anyone based on religious beliefs about marriage.
“Hello, this is a call from Kansas Family Policy Council Action with an urgent message about religious liberty in Kansas. Your legislator in Topeka took a courageous vote in support of religious freedom last week. Homosexual activists are planning a huge protest against religious freedom and Kansas legislators next week,” the message says.
“Because of this severe attack calls are urgently needed. Please go to www.kslegislature.org and click on find your legislator. Then call or e-mail your legislator right away. Thank your legislator and please leave your name and city as well. Thank you for your time. Paid for by Kansas Family Policy Action.”
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House members overwhelmingly approved the bill, but Senate leaders blocked it, saying it was too broad, would hurt businesses and was discriminatory.
Robert Noland, executive director of the Kansas Family Policy Council, said the automated calls targeted people living in districts with representatives who supported the bill.
The rally referred to in the message is the “Rally for Equality,” scheduled for Tuesday and organized by Equality Kansas, the LGBT rights organization that led opposition efforts against HB 2453.
Thomas Witt, the group’s spokesman, said the rally day was scheduled before the bill was introduced. But he said the past few weeks have generated more interest for the event than rallies in past years.
He also said the purpose of the rally was not to attack religious liberty.
Witt has repeatedly said his organization is willing to work toward a compromise that protects the religious freedoms of Kansans, as long as it does not impinge upon the rights of gay and lesbian Kansans.
“Legislation is always a product of compromise. And we are always willing to work with the other side. The other side is only interested in name calling,” Witt said.
Noland defended the characterization in the automated phone call. He also questioned the probability of a compromise.
“I am sure it’s possible. However, when what we’re trying to do is protect someone from a lawsuit to force them to go against their conscience, their sincerely held religious beliefs, all the opposition has said, ‘No you can’t do that. We won’t stand for it,’” Noland said.
Noland blamed the media for stalling the bill, and said his organization still wants the Legislature to take up the issue.
“We believe the media was grossly, grossly inaccurate in reporting the effect of 2453. We understand that the bill is not moving forward right now. We do believe there is still an opportunity to work on some important religious liberty concerns,” he said.
Noland said he was disappointed in comments from Senate leaders. He hopes that calls to the Legislature will send a message that religious conservatives do not want the issue to rest.
Another group, Kansans for Liberty, launched an e-mail campaign last week to resurrect the bill. That effort targets Senate leaders who have refused to allow a vote on the bill.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, has faced criticism from some on the religious right for scuttling the bill.
However, Wagle said that the title of bill – “Protecting religious freedom regarding marriage” – would not matter when it was litigated in court and that the proposed law’s scope would have been broader than many of its supporters realize.
“I believe House Bill 2453 was a terribly flawed bill. Period. I’ve talked to a number of attorneys who believe it was written in a far broader manner than what the intention was of the authors who sent us the bill,” Wagle said.
“That specific bill is dead,” she said, but she promised that the Senate would look at the issue of religious freedom thoroughly in March hearings. She said the Senate Judiciary Committee would review whether Kansas law already offers some of the legal protections that religious conservatives say are needed.
“We want a comprehensive look at the issue, and we also want to hear from businesses, what their concerns are.”
Similar bills have been introduced in state legislatures around the country. One died in the Tennessee Senate last week, while another passed in Arizona. Bills that went significantly further than HB 2453 were introduced and then quickly withdrawn in Idaho.