Kansas Halts ‘Too Far’ LGBT Bill

By John Celock

The Republican-controlled Kansas state Senate on Friday put the brakes on a bill that would allow businesses to deny service to same sex couples based on religious grounds. The move follows days of pushback from state residents who described the bill as discriminatory.

State Senate President Susan Wagle (R-Wichita) and her leadership team Friday morning announced that the religious freedom bill would be halted in its current form, citing concerns over the reach and opposition from the state’s business community. Wagle said the Senate Judiciary Committee would work with activists to redraft the bill in another manner.

“The Senate being a deliberative body we intend to debate religious liberty in a deliberative fashion,” Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce (R-Hutchinson) said during the press conference.

At issue is legislation the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives passed earlier this week that would allow businesses to refuse service to same sex couples based on the objection from one employee on religious grounds. Advocates said the bill is needed in the event the state’s same sex marriage ban is overturned by a federal court. They said the bill would protect religious liberty in the event a business did not want to provide services for a same sex wedding ceremony or to allow the Catholic Church from providing adoption services to same sex couples.

Opponents argued the bill was far reaching and would lead to increased discrimination against the LGBT community. They said it could lead to the denial of any services to an LGBT couple – not just those for a wedding ceremony – and the potential for police officers and firefighters to refuse to serve the LGBT population. The bill has received national media attention and opponents mobilized grassroots lobbying campaign.

“I am awed by the response,” state Rep. Barbara Bollier (R-Mission Hills), a moderate Republican who helped lead the fight against the bill, told The Celock Report. “The only time I had more response was on the Common Core bill and that was teachers across the state. This was so many people in my own home district.”

Bollier directly credits the grassroots response for leading Wagle to place the bill on hold.

“Had there been no uproar from the public, I think it would go through the Senate,” Bollier said.

While Gov. Sam Brownback (R) has taken no public stance on the bill – a common move from the chief executive – Bollier told The Celock Report that Republican House members were told by their leadership team during a meeting Friday morning that Brownback was prepared to sign the bill.

Brownback’s office did not respond directly to The Celock Report about Bollier’s comments, instead referring to a statement the governor released about religious liberty. A Brownback spokeswoman reiterated that the governor does not take stands about bills before they reach his desk.

“Religious liberty is a basic human right, and one that I have fought for in many countries and for many different faiths,” Brownback said in the statement. “Americans have Constitutional rights, among them the right to exercise their religious beliefs and the right for every human life to be treated with respect and dignity.”

Opponents warned, however, that the bill is not dead. Bollier said that she has heard that the Senate plans to strip the bill of the provisions relating to government employees and tighten concerns for the business community before passing a new version.

State business leaders have taken an outspoken stance against the bill in recent days. The head of AT&T operations in the state releasing a statement Friday saying the bill would impact business practices. Wagle cited small businesses including self-employed home-based businesses. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce also indicated concerns about the bill.

Topeka Councilman Chad Manspeaker (D), a leader of the state’s progressive community, told The Celock Report that a different Senate version would lead to a conference committee of the two chambers, which could rewrite the bill to bring back the original version. He said residents need to continue to pressure lawmakers to oppose the bill.

“Don’t shut this down,” Manspeaker said. “Keep calling and emailing. If it goes to conference and back to the House, they could try to amend it back.”

Wagle and her team did not signal exactly how the Senate plans to redraft the bill their press conference. They stressed they intended to protect religious freedom but were against discrimination. Wagle said she opposed any section that could allow a police officer or firefighter to deny service to anyone.

“Kansas has a rich and proud tradition of protecting religious freedom and standing against discrimination in any form,” Senate Vice President Jeff King (R-Independence) said at the press conference. “ Whatever action we take will continue that proud tradition in Kansas. The people of Kansas can trust that the actions of their Kansas Senate will protect religious liberty and fights discrimination in any form.”

Thomas Witt, the executive director of Equality Kansas, said he wants to talk to the Senate leadership about the bill and exact language to prevent discrimination. He said part of the goal is to discuss the discrimination issues in the state, noting existing state law does not include sexual orientation as a protected class. He said he looks forward to having conversations with Wagle and her team.

“We’re certainly willing to work with Senate leadership in developing language that respects religious freedom while at the same time protecting the equal rights of all Kansans,” Witt told The Celock Report.

State Rep. Charles Macheers (R-Shawnee), the bill’s main sponsor, and Rep. Steve Brunk (R-Wichita), the chairman of the House committee that passed the bill, did not return calls for comment.

With the Kansas legislature and governor’s office being controlled by conservative Republicans, many had expected the bill to pass. Bollier said she thinks the state is finally saying how far conservatives can go.

“They pushed beyond the comfort zone of the people with their conservative ideology,” she said. “This was too far.”

(H/T WIBW News, which placed video of the Senate press conference on Facebook.)