Sunday, February 10, 2013

New version of Kansas Religious Preservation Act appears to address gay rights concerns

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

The Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, which last year was portrayed by some as anti-gay, has re-emerged this year, but in a form that gay rights advocates say they can live with.

“We don’t have an issue with the bill,” said Tom Witt, executive director of the Kansas Equality Coalition.

During the 2012 legislative session, Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration and state Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, pushed for the Religious Preservation Act, saying it was needed to prevent the government from interfering with an individual’s beliefs.

“Free exercise of religion is at the core of who we are as a people,” Kinzer had said. Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer cited the health care overhaul signed by President Barack Obama that requires most employers to cover birth control as an example of the federal government trampling on religious liberties.

The original version of the Religious Preservation Act would have prohibited government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless it furthered a compelling interest and was done in the least restrictive way possible.

But a person couldn’t cite religious beliefs to discriminate against individuals covered by the Kansas Act Against Discrimination. This includes discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, disability, national origin or ancestry.

Gay rights advocates said that because sexual orientation wasn’t covered by the Kansas Act Against Discrimination, the Religious Preservation Act could allow someone to use his or her religious beliefs to discriminate against gays.

Lesbians and gays opposed the bill at the time, with Witt calling it “nothing more than legislative gay-bashing.”

And Lawrence officials said the Religious Freedom Act would have trumped a city of Lawrence anti-discrimination ordinance that protects sexual orientation.

During debate on the bill, House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, asked Kinzer whether under his bill an apartment owner could cite religious beliefs to fight a complaint if refusing to rent to a same-sex couple.

“That is generally correct,” Kinzer said.

The House approved the bill, but it was ignored by Senate leaders.

Witt said the new version — House Bill 2203 — is not limited by acts of discrimination under the Kansas Act Against Discrimination.

“It was a surprise when I saw the bill,” he said.

Kinzer said he believes the new version of the bill accomplishes the same goal as the old version.

“The bill was always intended just to be a shield for people who want to basically make sure that governmental action is not impinging on people’s religious liberties,” Kinzer said.

“My hope is that the way the bill is drafted now will take an issue off the table that I personally always felt was a red herring, but then obviously some people were concerned about,” he said.

Witt said he will continue to watch the bill closely, noting that it can always be amended.

“It’s a long process,” he said.