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Kansas Senate balks at religious liberty bill

Updated: 2014-02-14T19:57:10Z

By BRAD COOPER

The Kansas City Star

— A Kansas bill shielding anyone refusing to provide service to same-sex couples on religious grounds appears to be in serious jeopardy.

Senate President Susan Wagle took the unusual step Thursday night of issuing a statement saying the bill — which has drawn an avalanche of national criticism — didn’t have the support of a majority of Republicans in her chamber.

“A strong majority of my members support laws that define traditional marriage, protect religious institutions and protect individuals from being forced to violate their personal moral values,” Wagle said.

“However, my members also don’t condone discrimination.”

With fewer than half the 32 Senate Republicans supporting the bill, it would need Democratic support to pass the 40-member chamber, an unlikely prospect since Democrats are lined up against it.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka applauded Wagle’s comments.

“The Kansas Legislature should never advocate discrimination of any kind based on a perceived notion of religious freedom,” Hensley said in a statement.

Wagle, however, allowed a little wiggle room for negotiation on the bill, suggesting in her statement there might be a way to find common ground.

If not, “I believe a majority of my caucus will not support the bill,” the Wichita Republican said in her statement.

The Kansas House passed the bill Wednesday, spurring a national outcry that it was tantamount to state-sanctioned discrimination. The critics gained traction on social media, where a Facebook page set up opposing the measure received nearly 40,000 “likes” by late Thursday.

Supporters said the bill was intended to address court decisions overturning bans on gay marriage in Utah and Oklahoma and, maybe, one day in Kansas. They believe the state’s ban on gay marriage is in the “cross hairs.”

They said they drew up the legislation to protect the religious liberties of anyone on either side of the same-sex marriage debate. They vehemently denied the bill was a vehicle for discrimination.

They pointed to a number of cases across the country where actions were taken against photographers, bakers and florists who refused to provide service to same-sex weddings.

Consider a few:

• A Colorado judge found last December that a baker discriminated against a gay couple when he refused to bake a wedding cake because he thought homosexuality was a sin. The judge said he couldn’t refuse gay couples again.

• The New Mexico Supreme Court found that a photography business that refused to photograph a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony violated the state’s anti-discrimination law. The business has taken the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

• Vermont innkeepers were sued in 2011 after refusing to host a lesbian couple’s wedding reception. They settled the lawsuit by agreeing to pay a $10,000 civil penalty and agreeing to no longer host any weddings or receptions, according to The Associated Press.

The Kansas bill would bar legal action — government sanctions or civil suits — for people who refuse to provide services relating to marriages or civil unions that are contrary to their faith.

It would allow someone employed with the government or “nonreligious entity” to invoke their faith as a basis for not providing service.

Supporters said the bill was narrowly written to apply to the marriage ceremony. But critics said it potentially would apply to thousands of Kansas workers who might cite religious conviction to get out of performing their duties.

Rep. Charles Macheers, a Shawnee Republican, led efforts to pass the bill. Macheers told The Star earlier Thursday that the bill did not go beyond marriage.

But critics said the wording was broad and vague, opening the door for discrimination.

“The ACLU is pleased to hear that (Wagle) saw this bill for what it is,” an effort to legalize discrimination in Kansas, said Holly Weatherford, Kansas advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Religious liberty is alive and well in Kansas, and religion shouldn’t be used to discriminate.”

State Rep. Lance Kinzer of Olathe, who supported the bill, said it was never intended to deny general services to anyone based on sexual orientation.

He said he would support adding language ensuring there was no discrimination if that would ease fears in the Senate.

He also said he would agree to jettison another clause that has been interpreted as extending beyond marriage to private- sector employees.

The bill was a model developed by the Washington, D.C.-based American Religious Freedom Program, lawmakers said.

The project is part of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which a couple years ago encouraged legislatures to form religious freedom caucuses aimed at keeping the government from stepping on religious liberties.

The program’s legislative director testified for the bill. No one from the program could be reached for comment Thursday.

To reach Brad Cooper, call 785-354-1388 or send email to bcooper@kcstar.com.

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