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Debate on religious freedom, LGBT rights starts this week in Missouri House

Rep. Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican, chairs the House Emerging Issues Committee, which is expected to hold a hearing sometime this week on Senate Joint Resolution 39.
Rep. Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican, chairs the House Emerging Issues Committee, which is expected to hold a hearing sometime this week on Senate Joint Resolution 39. Missouri House Communications

Debate over a proposed “religious freedom” amendment to Missouri’s constitution moves to the House this week, with a committee expected to hold a public hearing as early as Tuesday night.

The legislation, Senate Joint Resolution 39, would amend the state constitution to protect certain individuals and businesses who cite religious beliefs to refuse service to same-sex couples. If approved by the Legislature it would bypass Gov. Jay Nixon and go directly to the statewide ballot later this year for voter approval.

Opponents say it enshrines anti-gay bias into the constitution, and Democrats staged a 39-hour filibuster to try to kill the bill last month. Republicans turned to a rarely-used parliamentary maneuver to squash the filibuster and force the bill out of the Senate, arguing that the amendment is needed to prevent those with sincerely held religious beliefs from being punished by government.

House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, assigned the bill the the House Emerging Issues Committee. A hearing hasn’t been officially scheduled, but it’s expected to take place either Tuesday or Wednesday night this week.

Since the bill passed the Senate last month, the business community has come out in force against the legislation.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, along with local chambers in Kansas City and St. Louis, have said the legislation would hurt the state’s economy. They’ve been joined by some of the largest employers in the state, including Monsanto, AT&T, MasterCard, Dow Chemical and others.

“We are concerned some of the provisions of Senate Joint Resolution 39 are directly counter to our Missouri values and will have significant negative economic effects on our state,” a group of St. Louis-area executives said in a letter to House Emerging Issues Committee Chairman Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican.

The NCAA, Big 12 Conference and Southeastern Conference have each expressed concerns with the legislation and hinted that its passage could mean they refuse to host events in Missouri in the future.

The controversy over “religious freedom” legislation isn’t exclusive to Missouri. Republican lawmakers in numerous states have pushed measures that would expand religious protections in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision last June legalizing gay marriage nationwide.

In North Carolina, where the state’s Republican governor recently signed a bill limiting legal protections for LGBT individuals, PayPal announced it was ditching plans for a new $3.6 million operations center in Charlotte that would’ve employed 400 people.

In Mississippi, executives from eight large companies, including GE, the Dow Chemical Co., PepsiCo, Hyatt Hotels Corp. and Whole Foods Market, signed on to a letter calling state lawmakers to repeal a recently passed law allowing religious groups, businesses and individuals to deny services to the LGBT community.

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