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Some Kansas GOP lawmakers would rather religious freedom bill just ‘go away’

Updated: 2014-03-05T12:01:05Z

By Bryan Lowry

Eagle Topeka bureau

— It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, Kansas House speaker Ray Merrick said as lawmakers returned to work after facing national criticism for passing a bill critics say would have legalized discrimination against same-sex couples.

“Unfortunately, in this game, you don’t have that option,” Merrick, R-Stilwell, said Monday.

Legislators who voted for House Bill 2453 say they have been getting angry calls and e-mails from constituents and people across the country.

Some Republican lawmakers said they wish that HB2453 and the uproar it has caused would just go away. Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, called the bill toxic.

“This bill, even if it isn’t what it’s accused of being, it’s so tainted now that it needs to go away, because the debate has just been completely scuttled,” Schwab said.

Schwab voted for the bill despite concerns that it went too far. He said this is why Kansas has a bicameral Legislature.

“A lot of times we get a bill where we like part of it and hate part of it. And the part that I hated – I’m not an attorney – I didn’t know it actually went as far as it stated,” Schwab said.

He said he wanted to protect his constituents’ religious liberty.

“Did I make a vote that I regret? Yeah, that happens, you know. But at the end of the day, my intentions were pure even if my actions were not,” Schwab said.

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, also worried about unintended consequences on the day of the vote. He still cast his vote in favor of the measure.

“I still believe that those issues can be resolved in the Senate,” Huebert said. “Even on the floor, there were people that were talking about some business issues, and I said, ‘You know, we can pull it back and work them here, or we can send it over to the Senate and those issues will be resolved over there.’ ”

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, who broke from her party in the vote, said it was a simple decision to vote against the bill.

“I read the bill, so I voted no,” Clayton said.

Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said Republicans have taken a pummeling, and he’s ready for public debate and discussion on the bill to end.

“It’s taken on a life of its own, and I’d just as soon see (the bill) go away,” Hawkins said. “Don’t judge us based on one vote.”

Interpretations of the bill have varied greatly. Proponents say the bill exempts businesses and public and private employees from refusing services only for weddings that conflict with their religious beliefs. But opponents and Senate leadership say they believe the bill goes much further and could be applied to marriages generally.

Gov. Sam Brownback called himself a “strong proponent and supporter for religious liberty” when the bill first passed through a House Committee.

His office said the administration would not comment specifically on pending legislation, but it did issue a short general statement on the issue of “religious liberty” in an e-mail.

“Americans have Constitutional rights, among them the right to exercise their religious beliefs and the right for every human life to be treated with respect and dignity,” the statement said.

Kelly Arnold, chair of the Kansas Republican Party, said the controversy could potentially hurt the party with younger voters.

Paul Brink, a Wichita State University student who visited the Capitol on Monday, said he would never vote for anyone who supported the bill.

“I couldn’t see myself voting for any of those people,” Brink said. “The philosophy behind wanting to pass a bill like that is completely incompatible with what I think our country and our state should stand for.”

But Arnold is confident the party can rebound by November.

“I think it’s just one piece of legislation that’s going to be passed this year. Most Kansans care more about the economy in this state and growing this state with good jobs,” Arnold said.

Arnold praised Senate leadership for pausing on the legislation and approaching it cautiously and analytically.

“Any time you’re voting on an issue like this, it brings a lot of passion,” Arnold said. “It’s good to put the brakes on, take a look at it and see what needs to be fixed on the bill.”

But even if Brownback and Senate Republicans are able to sidestep the political storm, there’s no question that the House Republican Caucus has taken a hit politically.

At a news conference on Friday, Merrick was asked whether the House needed to re-establish competence.

“How many bills do we deal with in a year’s time? And to say that we got one hiccup so therefore we don’t know what we’re doing,” Merrick said. “I don’t sit here day after day after day going through bills that we passed and all the mistakes in them.”

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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