Politics & Government

House panel approves bill that shields Kansans who refuse to serve same-sex couples on religious grounds

FILE  The House Chamber in the Kansas Statehouse.
FILE The House Chamber in the Kansas Statehouse. The Wichita Eagle

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly named the bill's sponsor. It was introduced by Rep. Charles Macheers, R-Shawnee.

The Kansas House will move forward with a bill that would give government employees the right to refuse service to same-sex couples on the basis of their religious beliefs.

Republican supporters of House Bill 2453 say the bill concerns religious liberty. Democratic opponents said the bill unfairly targets gay Kansans. The two sides talked circles around each other Thursday at a meeting of the House Committee on Federal and State Affairs.

Passages from the Kansas Bill of Rights were read, allusions to the Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution were made, and surreal hypothetical questions were posed by each side. In the end, the bill passed through committee and will now head to the floor for a vote in the near future.

Gov. Sam Brownback said that he has yet to read the bill, but called himself a “strong proponent and supporter for religious liberty.”

“Religious liberty issues are ones that I’ve been around for a long time. I’ve fought for religious liberty in many countries and with many different faiths,” Brownback said. “It’s basic in the Bill of Rights.”

The bill was drafted in reaction to federal court rulings overturning same-sex marriage bans in other states, said Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, the committee’s chairman. In 2005, Kansas voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage.

The scope of the bill introduced by Rep. Charles Macheers, R-Shawnee has been hotly debated. The bill goes further than past legislation concerning same-sex marriage because it extends to private businesses as well as government employees.

If the bill becomes law, public and private employees alike could refuse service to same-sex couples based on their religious beliefs concerning marriage. Because religion is a protected status, the employer could not terminate the employee for this refusal. The law would also shield private businesses from discrimination lawsuits.

A provision requires government agencies to still provide the requested service, but individual clerks could object to signing a marriage license, for example. Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco, introduced an amendment, which passed, that would exempt private businesses from the same legal obligation.

Rep. Ponka-We Victors, D-Wichita, said this would mean that gay Kansans’ tax dollars would be paying for their own discrimination.

Couture-Lovelady said opponents claiming the bill is meant to discriminate against gays have distracted from the real issue at stake. He said the bill protects religious liberty and has a narrow focus on the celebration of marriage.

Tom Witt, spokesman for an Equality Kansas, an LGBT rights organization, objected to that claim.

“He’s incorrect,” Witt said. “The distraction is making this about wedding cakes. It’s not about wedding cakes.

“It’s about telling government employees they don’t have to do their jobs. They can pretend legal marriages don’t exist.”

Witt pointed to a section of the bill that exempts public and private employees from having to “treat any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement as valid.” Witt and other opponents say this provision means that the bill reaches much further than proponents have suggested.

“That’s not about the ceremony. That’s not about the wedding cake,” Witt said.

Rep. Annie Tietze, D-Topeka, introduced an amendment that would remove government entities from the bill and also remove the inclusion of adoption services, but would still protect religious institutions like Catholic Charities. Tietze argued government services should be for everyone.

Her amendment failed to gain support.

Rep. Emily Perry, D-Mission, voiced her opposition to the bill by quoting the Kansas Bill of Rights.

“All men are possessed of equal and inalienable natural rights,” read Perry. “All men,” she repeated.

Brunk pushed back against criticisms that the bill would violate the rights of some Kansans by allowing government employees to discriminate against them.

“So if somebody is employed by a governmental entity as opposed to a private entity, do they no longer have very, very basic religious protections?” he asked. “I mean that’s fundamental within our constitution.”

Though he said the bill was in response to federal court rulings, Brunk denied that the bill targets same-sex couples specifically.

“It has do with marriage,” Brunk said. He said that the bill protects individuals from being forced to do something “that celebrates or solemnizes in some way a marriage, whether it’s a homosexual marriage or a heterosexual marriage.”

“The bill is clear about cutting both ways on that,” Brunk said.

During the hearing Brunk even presented an elaborate hypothetical that the bill would protect a signmaker who supports gay marriage from having to make a protest sign for the Westboro Baptist Church.

Other supporters of the bill warned of religious persecution.

Rep. Allan Rothlisberg, R-Garden Plaza, invoked the image of the Pilgrims fleeing Europe. Rep. Willie Dove, R-Bonner Springs, said religious freedom was in “jeopardy” and compared the situation to racial discrimination.

Witt pointed out that under current Kansas law, churches are exempt from performing same-sex weddings and businesses are already free to refuse service, as sexual orientation is not protected under the state’s anti-discrimination law. He said this bill doesn’t change that.

What it would do, however, is give government employees the right to exclude gay couples even if the courts rule same-sex marriage to be legal, he argued.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle