With a Missouri House committee expected to vote this week on the “religious freedom” amendment, Republican lawmakers are feeling pressure from both sides of the issue.
Opponents of the proposal — known as Senate Joint Resolution 39 or SJR39 — are pushing legal analyses that say it is poorly written and could have wide-ranging, unintended consequences.
Meanwhile, proponents are openly discussing political payback for any Republicans who stand in the way of the legislation.
The bill would ask voters to amend Missouri’s constitution to protect certain individuals and businesses who cite religious beliefs to deny service to a same-sex couple.
House Emerging Issues Committee Chairman Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican, says he expects to hold a vote on the legislation this week. The committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday night, and typically meets Wednesday night as well.
Supporters of the bill say it is narrowly drafted to only target businesses and individuals who don’t wish to participate in same-sex weddings, such as florists or bakers. But that conclusion is being challenged by a legal analysis by Husch Blackwell attorney Harvey Tettlebaum that says the proposal’s vague wording could be stretched to include a wide swath of situations.
“The ramifications of this include the following: judges refusing to marry same-sex couples; county employees refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; and department of revenue officials refusing to accept joint tax returns of same-sex couples, with the agency employing the individual powerless to take any employment action against the employee,” Tettlebaum said.
A group of law professors from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Washington University and St. Louis University go a step further. They argue in a legal analysis that vague wording in the proposed amendment could provide legal protections in criminal proceedings, too, such as trespassing, assault or even murder.
“This is an extremely broad law disguised as a narrow law,” Elizabeth Sepper, associate professor at Washington University School of Law and one of the authors of the analysis, told The Star. “This is not a well-drafted amendment. It’s broad in ways that voters may not catch on to.”
Allen Rostron, a constitutional law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who is not affiliated with any of analyses of the proposal, said he doesn’t see any way a judge or prosecutor would ever interpret the proposed constitutional amendment as allowing someone to literally get away with murder.
But he agrees there are “are a lot of problems with how this amendment is drafted.”
“Because of the way it is written,” Rostron told The Star, “I think there are a lot of risk to putting this in the state’s constitution.”
Meanwhile, supporters of the amendment are pointing to a pair of Republicans on the House Emerging Issues Committee who are expected to oppose the measure — Reps. Caleb Rowden of Columbia and Anne Zerr of St. Charles County — and contemplating electoral payback.
Zerr is already in a Republican primary for a seat in the Missouri Senate.
Rowden is running against Democratic Rep. Stephen Webber for a Columbia-based seat in the Senate — a race widely considered one of the few that will be competitive in the Senate this year.
In a series of social media posts last week, Missouri Baptist Convention director of public policy Don Hinkle began openly calling for a third-party candidate for the Rowden-Webber contest.
“I've got a former Army Ranger in Columbia who would make an excellent candidate, running as an independent for the state Senate seat in Columbia,” Hinkle wrote. “He supports SJR 39, too!”
He went on to discuss how to get someone on the ballot as an independent.
“All we need is to get signatures of about 2 percent of the total number of voters from the last state senate race that Rowden is running for,” Hinkle said. “That person would be on the ballot as an independent for the November election. I think we need to ramp this effort up.”
The House Emerging Issues Committee was originally expected to vote on the bill last Wednesday, but Haahr said he’d give lawmakers until this week to study testimony and legal opinions provided to them. Democrats, however, argued that the fact the vote was delayed meant that support for the legislation was eroding.
The bill has already passed the Senate. If it clears the House it would be placed on the ballot for statewide voters later this year.