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‘Religious freedom’ debate in Missouri House goes four hours, ends without a vote

The Missouri House Emerging Issues Committee had a public hearing on SJR39, the “religious freedom” amendment, Tuesday night.
The Missouri House Emerging Issues Committee had a public hearing on SJR39, the “religious freedom” amendment, Tuesday night. AP

Late into the night Tuesday, supporters and opponents of a proposed “religious freedom” amendment sparred over its potential impact.

On one side, religious leaders and Republican elected officials implored the House Emerging Issues Committee to approve the amendment as is and place it on the ballot for Missouri voters to decide.

On the other, business executives and LGBT-advocates urged lawmakers to alter or kill the bill, arguing that it’s success will hurt Missouri’s economy by enshrining discrimination in the state constitution.

Four hours of discussion ended shortly after midnight without a vote by the committee.

“What I’ve said from the beginning is I didn’t want to bury the bill and I didn’t want to speed the bill through,” said Rep. Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican who chairs the committee. “My job was to give it the most thorough and fair vetting possible.”

Haahr said he’s made no decision on how to move forward or when the committee will hold a vote.

The legislation in question — known as Senate Joint Resolution 39, or SJR39 — would ask voters to amend Missouri’s Constitution to protect certain individuals and businesses who cite religious beliefs in order to refuse service to same-sex couples.

Proponents are pushing the measure in response to last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

They say the amendment is needed to prevent those with sincerely held religious beliefs from being punished by government, and point to lawsuits in other states faced by florists and bakers who declined to provide services for same-sex weddings.

“We’re not bigots,” said Phil Hopper, pastor at Abundant Life Church in Lee’s Summit. “We just disagree.”

Critics say clergy and houses of worship are already protected by the federal and state constitution from having to participate in a wedding they disagree with.

But because the proposed amendment extends protections to those in the private sector, it will allow businesses to legally discriminate against LGBT Missourians.

“At its core, SJR39 seeks to create a constitutional right to be mean to certain people based on who they love,” said Rep. Mike Colona, a St. Louis Democrat who is openly gay. “Freedom of religion must be respected and accommodated, but it cannot be used as an excuse to deny others the right to be treated with basic human dignity.”

 

Leading the charge against the “religious freedom” amendment are the business community, with companies from around the state on Tuesday announcing the formation of a coalition called Missouri Competes designed to help defeat the bill.

Among the nearly 100 companies in the coalition are Google Fiber, Pfizer, MasterCard and Monsanto.

Additionally, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce released a list of nearly 200 area businesses and organizations publicly opposed to SJR39. That group includes small businesses like Brightergy and Tom’s Town Distillery and large corporations like Burns & McDonnell and Kansas City Southern.

“We do not believe it is good enough to simply have the right corporate policies if our employees and customers don’t enjoy basic freedoms and protections in their daily lives,” said Duane Simpson, governmental affairs director for Monsanto.

Sen. Bob Onder, a St. Charles Republican sponsoring the legislation, said it’s a myth that the business community opposes the “religious freedom” amendment.

“I’d say business elites oppose SJR39,” Onder said.

The debate roiling Missouri politics isn’t unique.

When Indiana passed a “religious freedom” bill last year, it drew immediate outcry from the business community, eventually causing the state legislature to repeal it. Indianapolis estimates it lost $60 million in convention and tourism business because of the controversy.

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.

Sarah Rossi, director of advocacy and policy for the ACLU of Missouri, said the economic impact of the legislation is important to note. But she said because the definition of “religious organizations” protected in the amendment includes religious schools, charities, hospitals and nursing homes, among others, it could lead to “so many different contexts in which a person can be discriminated against.”

“It’s not just dollars and cents,” said Sarah Rossi, a lobbyist for the ACLU of Missouri. “It’s people’s lives.”

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 under current law, a person can legally be fired from a job, kicked out of a restaurant or evicted from an apartment for being gay.

That fact was highlighted last year when Missouri’s Western District Court of Appeals in Jackson County dismissed a lawsuit filed by a gay man who said he was fired for being gay because state law doesn’t prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Colona suggested adding LGBT non-discrimination language to the “religious freedom” bill, but Onder said that any changes in the House “will kill the bill.”

That position is shared by most supporters of the amendment, who believe if the bill is altered in any way it will be unable to once again pass the Senate, where Senate Democrats staged a 39-hour filibuster against the bill last month.

Rep. Anne Zerr, a St. Charles Republican, mentioned repeatedly that she’d like to remove provisions in the amendment pertaining to private businesses, leaving only protections for clergy and churches. She worries that in its current form the amendment will damage Missouri’s reputation around the country and hurt business’ ability to attract top talent.

“Talent is both gay and straight,” Zerr said. “I’m concerned this will hurt us.”

Haahr said he is “iinclined to support the bill as is, but the biggest concern I have is the business portion of the bill. If we think changes need to be made, we’ll make changes.”

Onder said that the amendment is trying to prevent discrimination and “anti-religious tyranny.”

“No one is being denied services by this bill,” Onder said. “We’re saying no one can be compelled by the force of government to participate in a wedding ceremony that violates their principles.”

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