By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World
KANSAS CITY, KAN. — The debate over religious freedom and gay rights will re-emerge in the Kansas Legislature next week, but a key senator said Friday he has no intention on working on a new bill.
An informational hearing will be held Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee on what is called the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, which was approved last year and signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback.
That law says that government cannot substantially burden a person's right to exercise religion.
It was approved in 2013 with little opposition after gay rights advocates said language had been removed from a 2012 version of the bill that would have opened the door to discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Then this legislative session, another bill emerged that said people could cite religious beliefs to deny services and goods to same-sex couples.
Supporters said that measure was aimed at ensuring people involved in the wedding business, such as bakers and photographers, wouldn't have to work at same-sex ceremonies if they opposed gay marriage based on religious reasons.
That bill was approved 72-49 by the House on Feb. 12, but then was crushed under a tidal wave of criticism from Democrats, Senate Republican leaders and business interests, who said the bill would have allowed widespread discrimination against gays and lesbians. Similar bills have stirred up controversy in other states, and earlier this week Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a similar bill.
With that bill dead in Kansas, Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, said Senate leaders believed it was important to have a hearing on the already-on-the-books Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.
King, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the informational hearing will bring in legal experts from across the country to provide their analyses on the law.
Some groups, such as the Kansas Family Planning Council Action, have called on legislators to re-work the dead HB 2453 and provide an alternative, but King said that is not his intent.
"I'm not working on a bill," he said. "I have no intention of working on a bill. I don't know what others are doing, but these hearings are not for the purposes of creating a bill."
King said he believes much of the debate this year has overlooked passage of the law in 2013.
"One thing that is very apparent to me is that on all sides of the debate we haven't appreciated enough the importance of the law that we passed last year," he said.
While the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act was approved with little opposition, it initially stirred up controversy.
The original version debated in 2012 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. 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 Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, as it was written then and supported by Gov. Sam Brownback's administration, would have allowed someone to use his or her religious beliefs to discriminate against gays.
And Lawrence officials said the original version of the Preservation of 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 the bill's primary sponsor, state Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, 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 then.
In 2013, supporters of the bill provided a different version, one that was not limited by acts of discrimination under the Kansas Act Against Discrimination. That was agreed to by gay rights advocates, and the measure sailed through the Legislature.
On Friday, Davis, the likely Democratic nominee for governor, called on Brownback, a Republican who is seeking re-election, to direct GOP legislative leaders to halt discussion of the issue.
“It is time for Gov. Brownback to end the discussion of this bill once and for all and refocus legislators on the challenges that face all Kansans — our struggling schools, lagging economy and soaring costs for middle class families,” Davis said.
Davis said it’s a bad idea to continue debate. “Every moment we spend on this issue divides Kansans, damages the reputation of our great state and keeps us from doing the job we were elected to do,” he said.
In response to Davis’ statements, Brownback’s office issued a statement, saying the governor is focused on his agenda of funding all-day kindergarten, restoring funds cut from higher education and funding the state prison budget.