Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Kansas House gives first-round approval to ‘religious freedom’ measure that critics say encourages discrimination against gays

By CAITLIN DOORNBOS, The Lawrence Journal-World

KANSAS CITY, KAN. ----- With a 72-42 vote Tuesday, Kansas House members gave first-round approval to a bill that aims to protect the rights of individuals, religious groups and businesses to refuse services or goods for gay weddings based on religious beliefs.

“It’s just a protective measure to ensure the religious liberties we already have will stay in place the same no matter what happens in the future,” said State Rep. Charles Macheers, R-Overland Park, referring to the possibility that Kansas’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage could be overturned.

Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, said many businesses in Kansas are unaware of potential threats to their religious freedoms.

“If the Kansas marriage amendment is ever struck down by the courts, all sorts of possibilities never contemplated by most small business owners could suddenly present themselves,” Schuttloffel said.

But Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said the bill offered anything but protection.

“If this is a protection bill, it should be protecting all people’s rights,” Ballard said. “But I’m sure some are not feeling very protected. They’re feeling singled-out and discriminated against.”

Ballard plans to vote against the bill when the House takes final action on it Wednesday, but not because she doesn’t support religious freedom.

“I support religious freedom because I get to choose my religion,” Ballard said. “I do not, however, support selectively discriminating against persons in the name of religious freedom.”

In Lawrence, many business owners said that, if passed, the bill would have no effect on their work.

“Personally, I don’t think that one’s beliefs have anything to do with making a cake,” said Desiree Lopez, owner of BellaRoca Cakes. “As a business, we try not to get into anyone’s personal business.”

Some Lawrence business owners were dumbfounded by the bill.

“Honestly it doesn’t make much sense to me,” said Kristin Spacek, owner of Owens Flower Shop. “I don’t know that it would affect our business, really; we don’t discriminate against somebody because of a religious belief.”

But Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican, said small business owners have told her they’re concerned that they’d be unable to enforce their own policies.

“They are stakeholders and have an interest in this particular piece of legislation,” she said.

The scope of the bill extends beyond businesses. Additionally, HB2453 bans civil claims of discrimination against groups citing religious preference and prohibits government from forcing religious groups to perform or recognize a marriage or civil union. The implications of this concern opponents of the bill.

“This is not about wedding cakes,” said Thomas Witt, executive director of the Kansas Equality Coalition. “This is about this body saying we are going to ignore what the Supreme Court says and we are going to put that in our statute books.”

Witt expects the U.S. Supreme Court at some point to rule all state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Witt said HB2453 could potentially result in county clerks denying marriage licenses to couples, or police officers turning down a case based on their religious beliefs.

In the fiscal note attached to the bill, interim director of budget Jon Hummell writes that the attorney general expects HB2453, if passed, would face federal court challenges. Court costs to fight challenges to the bill are estimated between $50,000 and $275,000.

For Douglas County resident Jen Humphrey, who in December married Jessica Pierson legally in Iowa, the bill’s success is disappointing.

“It’s incredibly disheartening to see the state I call home – where I work, where I farm, where I live with my spouse – pursue these actions going against what is happening across the country,” Humphrey said. “While you have some states saying they are not going to litigate gay marriage, you have Kansas going in the other direction.”

Though the bill will likely pass the House, Humphrey said she and Pierson have been lucky enough to experience support from her friends, family and neighbors, which she said is crucial to a healthy relationship.

“I believe strongly that marriages last longer when they are supported by the community,” Humphrey said. “Jessica and I enjoy that support and I hope one day it is a marriage that is legally recognized in Kansas.”

Backers of the bill, meanwhile, said the state needs to act quickly. Federal judges in Oklahoma and Utah recently struck down those states’ gay-marriage bans, and they’re covered by the same federal appeals court circuit as Kansas.

“It’s substantially likely that within a year or so, court action will be taken that will change the definition of marriage in the state of Kansas,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican who opposes gay marriage.

Backers haven’t cited cases in Kansas of threatened lawsuits or government sanctions over someone’s refusal to provide goods or services to same-sex couples.

But a state agency in Oregon and a Colorado administrative law judge recently found that bakers refusing to make wedding cakes for same-sex ceremonies had discriminated against the couples, though neither state recognizes gay marriages. Cases in other states have involved refusals to provide flowers or take photos.

Kansas’ anti-discrimination laws don’t cover bias based on sexual orientation or gender identification. But Schuttloffel, with the Kansas Catholic Conference, said if a court strikes down the state’s gay-marriage ban, “the legal landscape dramatically changes.”

“The whole point of this is to provide some clarity,” he said.