A Kansas House panel heard testimony about how the religious liberty of Christians is under attack on the same day that it weighed a bill meant to restrict settlement of refugees from predominantly Muslim countries.
Barronelle Stutzman, a Washington state florist facing lawsuits for her refusal to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding, told lawmakers that as a Christian, she believes marriage is between a man and a woman.
“The government’s trying to force me to create expressions that violate my belief,” said Stutzman, who is being sued under a Washington law that forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation.
She later appeared at a religious freedom rally with Gov. Sam Brownback, which drew about a thousand people to the Capitol’s rotunda.
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“This is about freedom of conscience, about freedom of your soul,” Brownback told the crowd, calling for stronger religious protections.
Stutzman’s testimony to the Federal and State Affairs Committee preceded a hearing on HB 2612, which would enable the governor to suspend refugee settlement in communities deemed to lack capacity. Proponents said refugees coming from places such as Somalia, Pakistan and Syria – predominantly Muslim countries – pose a threat of terrorism.
“I think it’s very telling that on the day they were having a hearing on religious freedom, they then also had a hearing about refugees, many of whom are fleeing because their religious freedom is being violated,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. “They live in a state of terror, which I think is very different from the so-called religious freedom infractions that were being talked about earlier in the day.”
Views of Islam
Rep. Jan Pauls, R-Hutchinson, the committee’s chairwoman, said it was a coincidence the two topics were weighed on the same day. But she asserted a connection between terrorism and Islam when asked about the issue.
“The concern about terrorism is not related to a religious issue,” she said. “The fact that you have, unfortunately, a religion that sees terrorism as approved under the religion makes it more difficult, but I think it’s just an interesting aspect to it.”
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group, pushed back at the lawmaker’s characterization of Islam.
“We see this time and time again on a variety of issues nationwide and particularly in state legislatures, where the lawmakers zealously seek religious freedom for their own faith while seeking to hinder or demonize the faith of others, particularly Islam and Muslims,” he said.
HB 2612 would create a state office for refugees and allow local governments to apply for a moratorium on receiving refugees. It also would allow the governor to direct the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to investigate any crime committed by or against a refugee.
Christopher Holton, vice president for outreach of the Center for Security Policy, said the bill would not prevent refugees from entering Kansas – acknowledging that states don’t have that power – but that it would empower the state to seek more information on refugees.
“It is not bigoted to raise the question of security concerns,” Holton said.
He later said a war is taking place on U.S. soil, pointing to the shootings in Chattanooga, Tenn., that claimed the lives of five military service members last year.
That attack was carried out by a naturalized American citizen who was born in Kuwait and emigrated to the U.S. in 1996, rather than a refugee.
“The threat is real. … Not every refugee is a terrorist, but the reality is there are refugees that are terrorists,” he said.
Rep. Dick Jones, R-Topeka, who previously worked for the U.S. State Department, said federal agencies are not doing enough to vet refugees.
“Nobody is willing to take direct responsibility on this flood of refugees,” he said.
The committee will hear from the bill’s opponents on Thursday.
Same-sex marriage ruling
Jones also criticized the U.S. Supreme Court for ruling last year that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.
He called sexual orientation a choice and said “the Supreme Court has established a third sex for all intents and purposes. So there’s male and female and gay.”
Jones said that the national psyche had flipped on the issue and told Stutzman that unless it shifts back, “your desire to live in your Christian ethic, I think, is practically doomed, and I’m sorry to say that.”
Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, a gay-rights advocacy group, called Jones misinformed.
“And had this not been a one-sided presentation, we would have had an opportunity to set him straight on his understanding of (what) sexual orientation actually means,” Witt said, noting that only supporters of stronger religious objections laws were allowed to speak at the hearing Wednesday.
The committee did not consider a specific bill Wednesday, but efforts to strengthen religious protections have been brought to the Legislature in recent years. A bill to extend anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation is also before the Legislature this session.