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Missouri Democrats filibuster ‘religious-freedom’ bill that protects gay marriage opponents

The Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City.
The Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City.

Missouri Senate Democrats continued an all-night filibuster into Tuesday evening designed to kill a bill they say enshrines anti-gay discrimination into the state Constitution.

The eight-member Democratic caucus began its filibuster shortly after 4 p.m. Monday.

It continued into Tuesday evening, garnering national attention.

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richards said early in the day that he was prepared to force Democrats to talk for as long as it takes to pass the bill. Democrats showed no sign of ending their filibuster.

Sen. Bob Onder, a St. Charles County Republican, sponsored the measure that 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.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year legalizing same-sex marriage raised numerous questions, Onder said, specifically “what are the rights of those who disagree?”

“This amendment is entirely defensive, in that it prevents state and local governments from imposing penalties,” Onder said. “It is a shield, not a sword.”

The Bible mentions numerous times “the abomination of homosexuality,” said state Sen. David Sater, a Cassville Republican, later adding: “I’m not condemning this type of behavior. I just believe through my religious convictions that it is wrong.”

A lot of the arguments I’m hearing of proponents of this bill harken back to the same arguments we heard back in 1964 when people were fighting for segregation in Mississippi.

Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat

Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, said the rhetoric sounds familiar.

“A lot of the arguments I’m hearing of proponents of this bill harken back to the same arguments we heard back in 1964 when people were fighting for segregation in Mississippi,” he said.

He has many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender constituents, Holsman said, and when he reads the proposed amendment through through their eyes “I see a mean-spirited attempt to try to make the laws apply differently to me than they do to you.”

“Being LGBT has nothing to do with choice,” Holsman said. “You’re born the way your creator made you.”

Sen. Scott Sifton, a St. Louis County Democrat, pointed to the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia, which invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

“We’ve been here before on the issue of marriage,” he said. “Today we’re talking about same-sex marriage. Then we were talking about two people with different skin color. And all inside a century’s time.”

Onder argued that trying to attribute “some sort of bigoted motivation, I don’t think is fair.”

“There is no desire to discriminate against anyone,” Onder said. “This would simply protect people from being persecuted based on their religious beliefs.”

Sen. Ed Emery, a Lamar Republican, said he got the feeling Democrats were being deliberately misleading on the ramifications of the proposed constitutional amendment.

“Every word in this bill is discriminatory,” said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat.

“Can you point me to a specific phrase?” Emery responded.

“Pick any word,” Nasheed said.

Sen. Kiki Curls, a Kansas City Democrat, said that when people are allowed to refuse service to people based on their sexual orientation, “that’s discrimination. Just as it would be if they were refused service based on their race or their gender.”

Joining Democrats in opposition are a coalition of business groups, who fear the measure could have negative economic effects on the state. They point to Indiana, which passed a much broader religious exemption law and then suffered travel boycotts and canceled business expansions that ultimately cost the state $60 million by some estimates.

“While we understand the desire to protect clergy and religious institutions from having to perform ceremonies counter to their beliefs, expanding protections to individuals and private businesses that voluntarily enter the stream of public commerce sends the message to the rest of the country that Missouri condones discrimination,” the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce said in a statement Monday.

Missouri law already bans state and local government agencies from substantially limiting a person’s right to follow religious beliefs unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

Additionally, the Missouri Human Rights Act — which outlaws discrimination based on things like race, gender and religion — does not include sexual orientation and gender identity. That means a person can legally be fired from a job, kicked out of a restaurant or evicted from an apartment for being gay.

Filibusters aren’t unusual for the Missouri Senate, but they usually don’t run continuously over multiple days without any breaks.

In 2003, Senate Democrats spent 30 hours filibustering legislation aimed at reining in high-dollar civil lawsuits. In 1999, the Senate spent 38 hours over six days debating a bill that would ban a certain type of late-term abortion. And in 2002, senators spent 17 hours over two days debating a bill to provide state subsidies for a St. Louis Cardinals ballpark.

Republicans can break a filibuster using a procedural maneuver called “moving the previous question.” Doing so only takes a simple majority vote, but Senate leaders have historically been hesitant to utilize the procedure because it generates lasting bitterness among lawmakers.

Last year, 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.

If approved by the Senate, the proposed constitutional amendment would only need to pass the Missouri House before it would be placed on the statewide ballot.

As this week’s filibuster drew national attention, both of the leading Democratic candidates for president— Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — tweeted support for the filibuster Tuesday night.

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