Kansas House Advances Religious Freedom Bill

The Republican-controlled Kansas House of Representatives gave preliminary passage Tuesday to a bill that would allow businesses to deny service to same sex marriages based on religious objections from an employee.

With opponents of the bill arguing that the bill would increase discrimination against same sex couples, supporters said the bill is needed to protect religion in the event that a federal appeals court were to annul the state’s constitutional amendment on gay marriage. Supporters also indicated that the bill was needed to conform with the religious freedoms envisioned in the U.S. Constitution.

“Sincere people are having to choose between their deeply held religious beliefs and their livelihood,” Rep. Charles Macheers (R-Shawnee), the bill’s sponsor, said during the debate. “This is not what was pictured by the framers of the First Amendment.”

Macheers and his supporters were quick to dismiss a series of concerns raised during committee hearings in the House Federal and State Affairs Committee that the bill would raise discrimination. Among these concerns was that police officers could not respond to a domestic violence call at the home of a same sex couple.

Macheers and his allies did not cite the specifics of these concerns but insisted the bill was narrow in scope to wedding ceremonies and services provided to those ceremonies. They cited a series of issues from other states, including a baker in Oregon and a florist in Washington State who have been sued based on refusing to provide services to same sex weddings. Macheers said the bill would protect those who decline service based on religious beliefs from lawsuits. Supporters also said that states that have legalized same sex marriage have adopted religious freedom legislation.

Opponents of the bill cited the economic cost the bill could have on the state, noting concerns from the business community about the consequences the small businesses could face in implementing the bill. A move to send the bill back to committee for discussion of the economic impact failed.

Rep. John Wilson (D-Lawrence), an opponent of the bill, reminded his colleagues that the state has invested in building the “Kansas brand” to boost economic development and this bill could hurt that brand.

“If Kansas wants to be a haven for business and innovation we must have pro business policies,” Wilson said, citing LGBT friendly laws as part of that.

Rep. Steve Brunk (R-Wichita), the federal and state affairs committee chairman, was quick to note that if the bill were sent back to his committee for economic review, it would not be changed. He said the committee would hold hearings and discussions similar to what had occurred earlier this month before reporting the bill back to the full House.

Rep. Barbara Bollier (R-Mission Hills), a moderate Republican opposed to the bill, questioned if any religions actually advocate denial of service as part of their religious beliefs. She said her religious study has shown that religion advocates service to others. Macheers dismissed Bollier’s question as not related to the bill but noted that he “could think of examples” of religions refusing service but declined to say what they were.

Bollier pressed on with her argument.

“The point is that I have thought and thought and thought and I cannot come up with a single religion that advocates to not serve another. Not one,” she said.

Several lawmakers raised the discrimination argument during the debate, including Rep. Barbara Ballard (D-Lawrence) who compared the discussion to civil rights debates. Others noted that Kansas was admitted to the Union in 1861 as a free state following a long and at times bloody dispute over slavery.

“I don’t think there are a lot of people in our state who feel safe today,” Ballard said. “They feel attacked and they want to be treated as first class citizens.”

Macheers noted that the bill was designed to stop religious persecution. Among the examples he cited was the Pilgrims fleeing England in the 1600s based on their religious beliefs. Supporters also noted that the bill would protect the Catholic Church by allowing them to deny adoption services to same sex couples based on church doctrine, a move pushed by church officials.

Rep. Mark Kahrs (R-Wichita) said that the bill would actually provide protections to the LGBT population, noting that a “lesbian photographer” would be able to refuse to take photographs at a Catholic wedding ceremony if they were opposed to the Catholic Church’s views on same sex marriage.

Macheers closed his remarks by insisting the bill was against discrimination.

“I completely agree with the speakers up here this morning that discrimination is horrible. It is hurtful and it is sad,” he said. “It has no place in civilized society. That is why we are bringing this bill.”