Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Gay-rights advocates rally at Kansas Statehouse; efforts underway to revive alternative bill

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA, KAN. — As protesters rallied Tuesday outside the Capitol to bury a bill that they said would have provided legal protection for discrimination against gays, a Christian group sought to revive an alternative.

"We are not seeking to discriminate against anyone," said Robert Noland, executive director of the Kansas Family Planning Council Action.

Noland said his group was speaking with legislators about putting together an alternative to House Bill 2453, which was approved in the House earlier this month but then killed after an avalanche of criticism.

Opponents said HB 2453 would have allowed widespread discrimination against same-sex couples. Senate leaders pulled the plug on the bill as numerous businesses weighed in against the measure. Similar bills are generating mounting opposition in other states, including Arizona.

Noland, who testified in favor of HB 2453, said his group only wants to protect people in the wedding industry, such as bakers and photographers, from having to assist in a same-sex marriage ceremony if they have religious beliefs opposing same-sex marriage.

Noland's group released a poll that said 64 percent of Kansans would support "a bill that protects a Kansan employee or business owner in the wedding industry from being forced to assist in a same-sex marriage — either by photographing, catering or providing some related service — if that meant violating their faith."

That poll of 400 voters was conducted Feb. 19 by Lawrence Research of Santa Ana, Calif., and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Meanwhile about 200 gay-rights supporters met at the Statehouse and then rallied outside, warning against the resurrection of HB 2453 or a similar measure.

Brandi Fisher, executive director of the Mainstream Coalition, said, "House Bill 2453 plain and simple is a discrimination bill. While the number may be dead, this language is very much alive."

Lisa Grossman, an artist from Lawrence, said she came to the rally "To stand up for everyone." Kelly Barth of Lawrence said, "Anytime you discriminate against a group of people, you're dead wrong."

Another poll, this one by Public Policy Polling, showed that 59 percent of Kansans oppose allowing individuals and businesses to refuse service for same-sex couples. Only 29 percent would support that measure, according to the survey of 693 Kansas voters that was taken from Feb. 18 through Feb. 20. The margin of error was 3.7 percentage points.

Robert Eye, an attorney from Lawrence who attended the rally, said, "Most Kansans are offended by this proposal."

He said HB 2453 had numerous deficiencies. The measure said if someone had "sincerely held religious beliefs" they could deny services.

How would "sincerely held religious beliefs" be proven, Eye asked. He said that could be "a very large rug under which much mischief could be swept."

Eye said the legislation was "a manifestation of the need for the hard-core religious right to show that they have power."

But Noland, with the Kansas Family Policy Action, said a religious liberty bill needs to move forward to preserve religious liberty in case Kansas' constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is struck down by the courts.

"If we need to craft this tighter, we need to look at that and do that," he said.