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Vote on Missouri ‘religious freedom’ amendment is delayed

Rep. Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican, listened to testimony last week on Senate Joint Resolution 39, the “religious freedom” amendment.
Rep. Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican, listened to testimony last week on Senate Joint Resolution 39, the “religious freedom” amendment. Missouri House Communications

A committee vote on the controversial “religious freedom” amendment was delayed until next week, a move seen as a sign by some that the bill could be having trouble winning enough votes for approval.

Missouri House Emerging Issues Committee chairman Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican, denied that a lack of support motivated him to delay Wednesday night’s vote until Monday. Two committee members approached him asking for more time to consider written testimony and legal opinions that they received this week, he said, so he agreed not to hold a vote Wednesday.

“I want this bill to be thoroughly vetted,” Haahr said.

The legislation — known as Senate Joint Resolution 39, or SJR39 — would allow voters across the state to decide later this year whether to amend the Missouri Constitution to protect certain individuals and businesses who cite religious beliefs in order to refuse service to same-sex couples.

Republicans hold a 9-3 advantage on the committee. The fact that a vote wasn’t taken as expected is definitely a sign that the bill is having trouble, said Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat and a member of the committee.

“The delay shows the continued heartburn among members of the majority party on this issue,” LaFaver said. “Democrats have been unified against this bill. A significant contingent on their side is against it too. My guess is this delay is a symptom of that.”

Hours before the committee vote, at a rally in the Missouri Capitol rotunda, opponents of the measure heard from Michael Sam, a University of Missouri football star and the NFL’s first openly gay player. He called the “religious freedom” bill “just another way to undermine the dignity of LGBT people and their families.”

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.

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, they say it would allow businesses to legally discriminate against LGBT Missourians.

Leading the charge against the amendment has been the business community, with companies like Burns & McDonnell, Kansas City Southern, MasterCard and Monsanto arguing that enshrining discrimination in the state’s constitution would lead to long-term damage to Missouri’s economy.

They point to other states that have seen corporate backlash after passing “religious freedom” legislation.

Haahr said he and the other members of the committee have been getting a lot of pressure from both sides of the issue. While he would support moving the bill forward as is, he is open to the idea that some on his committee might want to offer amendments making changes to the bill.

Any changes would be opposed by Sen. Bob Onder, a St. Charles County Republican sponsoring the legislation. He has argued that if the House changes the bill in any way, it would likely kill it. That’s because that would mean SJR39 would have to go back to the Senate, which was only able to pass it last month by turning to a rarely used procedural maneuver to quash a 39-hour filibuster by Democrats.

Senate Joint Resolution 39 has become a fissure within the Republican candidate for governor. Three of the candidates — Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, former House speaker Catherine Hanaway and businessman John Brunner — are speaking out in support of the proposal.

Former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens broke ranks with his party Tuesday evening, releasing a statement declaring his opposition to SJR39.

If passed by both chambers of the Republican-dominated legislature, the amendment would go on the statewide ballot for voters approval later this year.

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock

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