After a 39-hour filibuster by Missouri Democrats, Republicans turned to a sporadically-used procedural maneuver to cut off debate and force a vote on legislation granting greater protections in the state Constitution for some business owners and individuals opposed to gay marriage.
After debate was cut off, the legislation was granted initial approval on a 23-9 vote. It still must be approved by the Senate one more time before going to the Missouri House. If it clears the House it would go on the statewide ballot later this year.
The measure would amend the Missouri Constitution to prohibit the government from punishing individuals and businesses that refuse on religious grounds to provide goods or services for marriage ceremonies or celebrations of same-sex couples.
That could include coverage for florists or bakers, who in other states have faced legal challenges for declining to provide services for same-sex weddings.
Republicans have argued that the amendment is designed to prevent those with sincerely held religious beliefs from being punished by government.
“No one should be compelled to make a work with their own hands that’s offensive to their beliefs,” said Sen. Bob Onder, a St. Charles County Republican.
Democrats say the measure enshrines discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Missourians in the state’s constitution.
“We will always stand against legislation that discriminates,” said Sen. Jill Schupp, a St. Louis County Democrat.
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, defended using the so-called “nuclear option” to end the Democratic filibuster.
“We are 23 in the majority. They are eight in the minority,” Richard said. “At some point we have to move on and to the business of Missouri.”
Democrats opposed the measure so vociferously because it “renders some people subhuman, second class citizens.” said Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat.
The bill is one of many that have introduced in state legislatures around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June legalizing same-sex marriage.
The Missouri Senate filibuster garnered national attention, including tweets of support from Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz offered his support to GOP senators in a tweet early Wednesday morning.
The maneuver used to cut off debate Wednesday is called “moving the previous question.” With a simple majority vote, a filibuster can be ended and a vote can be forced.
Senate leaders have historically been hesitant to utilize the procedure because it generates lasting bitterness among lawmakers. Last year, for example, GOP leaders used the “previous question” motion on a right-to-work law, and Democrats shut the Senate down and killed all but one remaining bill as retribution.
After a vote Wednesday morning, Democrats turned to a similar tactic they used last year, forcing votes on every motion and slowing down the functions of the Senate.
Whether Democrats will attempt to derail the rest of the legislation session, which doesn’t end until May 13, is not clear.
The 39-hour filibuster is the longest in recent history. In 1999, the Senate spent 38 hours over six days debating a bill that would ban a certain type of late-term abortion.