Politics & Government

Origin of religious freedom bills tough to trace

The Wichita Eagle

Religious freedom bills have cropped up throughout the country this year, but their origins have been difficult to trace.

Bills designed to shield business owners and employees from anti-discrimination lawsuits in the event a federal court legalizes same-sex marriage have been introduced in Kansas, Missouri and several other states.

Rep. Charles Macheers, R-Shawnee, sponsored HB 2453 in the Kansas House of Representatives. The bill would have given both public and private employees the right to refuse service to same-sex couples on religious grounds. After the bill passed 72-49, Macheers was beset with a wave of angry phone calls and e-mails. His picture and name spread nationally as the bill received widespread news coverage.

In an interview with The Wichita Eagle and Kansas City Star the day after its passage, Macheers admitted that he did not know the source of the legislation and that it had been passed on to him by Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe.

Kinzer said the model came from the American Religious Freedom Program, an outgrowth of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. The center’s website describes it as the “premier institute dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.”

Tim Schultz, the organization’s state legislative policy director, described the bill as a result of an ongoing conversation he and Kinzer have had regarding the possibility of a federal court overturning the Kansas ban against same-sex marriage.

Since then, Kansas Senate leaders have killed the bill and Gov. Jan Brewer in Arizona has vetoed similar legislation.

Tuesday, the American Religious Freedom Program said that it is not the sole creator of the legislation.

“We were among numerous faith communities and religious freedom experts consulted on that bill’s language. That would be my statement,” said Brian Walsh, executive director of the American Religious Freedom Program, in a phone call.

Walsh declined to name the other organizations involved or specify at what stage his organization became involved in either the Kansas bill or the model legislation.

“Look. You know how legislation is made. It’s like sausage and the process is non-linear,” Walsh said. “And there’s a lot of people who play into it. And they do different things at different times, so to actually describe it as though it were a linear and straightforward process is not how it works.”

Walsh said that though his organization was involved in the drafting of the legislation, he couldn’t be sure of the entire history of the legislation and he may be unaware of all organizations involved.

He declined to comment on whether the organizations were based in Kansas or elsewhere.

The Kansas Senate has no plans to work HB 2453, but the Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on religious freedom on Thursday to help determine whether any further legislation to protect religious rights is needed.

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