Saturday, February 15, 2014

Republican leaders promise rewrite of bill dealing with religious freedom and same-sex marriage

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA, KAN. — Republican legislative leaders on Friday sought to distance themselves from a House-approved bill that would have allowed people to cite religious beliefs in denying services to same-sex couples.

House Bill 2453 was approved 72-49 on Wednesday, prompting strong reaction around the country.

But on Thursday Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, essentially killed the measure, saying the bill was much broader than supporters had claimed and it would have harmed businesses.

AT&T and other companies announced their opposition to the bill.

"This legislation is impossible to implement," said AT&T Kansas President Steve Hahn. "The bill promotes discriminatory behavior by businesses against their customers; and it interferes with AT&T's management of our employees," he said.

In Lawrence, David Greenbaum, the owner of DoctorDave Computer Repair, on Friday decided to shut down for one day in protest of the bill.

"Denying customers service is bad for business and bad for the Kansas economy. Our Legislature should be encouraging companies to do business in and with Kansans," Greenbaum said.

He said denying service would also show customers what it feels like to be turned away.

A coalition of large and small businesses, including KCP&L and the Wichita Independent Business Association, also voiced opposition.

"This bill is discriminatory and also unworkable," said Chuck Caisley, vice president of marketing and public affairs for KCP&L.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said he voted for the measure believing it was a narrow protection of religious freedoms in the face of federal court decisions in states around the country striking down same-sex marriage bans similar to the one in the Kansas Constitution.

"I didn't see all the bogeymen in it that everyone else has seen," Merrick said.

But Merrick said since the vote he has seen the bill can be interpreted in many ways.

He, Wagle and other GOP leaders said the Legislature would continue working on a measure to protect religious freedoms but not in a way that discriminated against gays and lesbians.

Supporters of HB 2453 said it would protect from lawsuits and government action individuals who refuse to provide services to same-sex couples because they believe homosexuality is morally wrong.

They said these peoples’ religious rights are being trampled by recent court decisions striking down other states’ bans on same-sex marriages.

But gay-rights advocates said the bill would have allowed widespread discrimination against gays and lesbians that would be equivalent to the days when blacks or inter-racial couples were denied equal treatment.

They said that under the bill same-sex couples could be denied being served in restaurants or that police could decide not to assist a same-sex married couple in distress.

The bill said that a governmental entity could not require an individual or religious entity to treat a marriage as valid if doing so would be contrary to sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity.

Wagle said one of her concerns was that the bill would have allowed a police officer or firefighter to refuse assistance. That needs to change in any potential legislation, she said. "Public service needs to remain public service for the entire public," she said.

Wagle also said small businesses would have been harmed because an employee could refuse to serve someone and the owner would be forced to find someone else to do the job.

She used the example of a baker she has used for weddings of her daughters. "If this bill were to become law and she chose not to serve a same-sex couple, this law would require her to find someone else to provide that service. She has no other employees," Wagle said.