Government & Politics

Missouri ‘religious freedom’ bill continues to stoke tensions

Missouri is not the only state restricting LGBT rights

From Georgia to North Carolina, many U.S. states are considering or have passed laws that, when enacted, restrict rights to LGBT individuals. On March 23, North Carolina’s governor signed a bill that that prevents local governments from allowing p
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From Georgia to North Carolina, many U.S. states are considering or have passed laws that, when enacted, restrict rights to LGBT individuals. On March 23, North Carolina’s governor signed a bill that that prevents local governments from allowing p

More than once over the last few weeks, Don Hinkle has been accused of bigotry and discrimination.

And it doesn’t sit very well with him.

As director of public policy for the Missouri Baptist Convention, Hinkle was among the architects of a “religious freedom” amendment to the state’s constitution aimed at protecting certain individuals and businesses who cite religious beliefs to refuse service to same-sex couples.

Democrats staged a 39-hour filibuster to try to kill the bill in the Missouri Senate, garnering national attention. Republicans responded by shutting down debate and forcing a vote with a rarely used procedural maneuver.

With debate now shifting to the Missouri House, and with some of the state’s largest companies publicly condemning the amendment, proponents are trying to make their case that they aren’t trying to promote discrimination.

State Sen. Bob Onder introduces an amendment to the Missouri Constitution that, if approved by voters, would allow certain individuals and businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples based on their religious beliefs.

“We hear people screaming about discrimination,” Hinkle told The Star. “This bill doesn’t discriminate against anybody. As a southern Baptist, I love (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people. I do not want them discriminated against. I don’t want them ridiculed or hurt in any way. This bill is simply asking everyone to live and let live.”

To those opposed to the amendment, Hinkle’s argument rings hollow.

“If this passes, LGBT people will not be free to live and let live,” said Sarah Rossi, an attorney and director of advocacy and policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. “It gives the ability to live and let live to those who want to discriminate and takes it away from LGBT people.”

Civil rights vs. religious freedom

The debate roiling Missouri politics isn’t unique. 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.

Last year, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed an executive order prohibiting state government from taking action against clergy members or religious organizations that deny services to couples based on religious beliefs.

The Missouri legislation goes beyond Kansas’ executive order by seeking to put similar protections in the state’s constitution.

Proponents point to lawsuits in other states faced by florists and bakers who declined to provide services for same-sex weddings. Christian business owners are being targeted by activists, they say, and must be protected.

“A baker will make them a birthday cake,” Hinkle said. “He’ll make them cupcakes. It’s just the question of a gay wedding. That’s it. It’s very narrow.”

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.

A handful of local municipalities, including Kansas City and Jackson County, have passed nondiscrimination ordinances protecting LGBT citizens. But in the rest of Missouri, Rossi said, “you can discriminate against an LGBT person with no legal ramifications.”

The proposed constitutional amendment would override those local ordinances, Rossi said. And even if it were narrowly tailored to only focus on florists, bakers and others associated with weddings, “it’s still enshrining discrimination in the constitution,” she said.

However, Rossi says the amendment isn’t narrow at all.

The definition of “religious organizations” that would be protected under the legislation includes religious schools, charities, hospitals and nursing homes, among others.

That could mean not only that a baker can deny a same-sex couple a wedding cake, she said, but that an adoption agency or a nursing home could turn away that couple based on a religious opposition to gay marriage.

“Saying it’s narrowly tailored is blatantly false,” Rossi said.

Ryan Johnson, president of the conservative nonprofit Missouri Alliance for Freedom, who also helped craft the “religious freedom” amendment, said in a recent radio interview that if a same-sex couple is denied service by a baker based on religious beliefs, they can “go down the street to the other five bakers in town that would happily bake them a wedding cake.”

He dismissed the idea that the bill protects discrimination.

“If there’s any bigotry on display here at all,” he said, “it’s the anti-religious bigotry of the left.”

Critics of the amendment say it’s an attempt to cloak discrimination in the veil of religious liberty, a tactic with a long history.

Alabama Gov. George Wallace repeatedly invoked God in his 1963 speech that came to be known as “segregation now, segregation forever.”

And when Bob Jones University lost its tax-exempt status in 1983 over its policy barring interracial marriage or dating among students, it unsuccessfully sued the federal government, arguing to the U.S. Supreme Court that prohibitions on racial discrimination “cannot constitutionally be applied to schools that engage in racial discrimination on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs.”

“Religious conviction has historically been used as an excuse to justify racism, discrimination and slavery,” said Sen. Kiki Curls, a Kansas City Democrat.

Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, said in a newsletter to his constituents that the proposed amendment creates “a second class of citizens,” noting that arguments in support of the idea “are the same arguments once used to justify the denial of service based on race or gender.”

Carl Esbeck, a professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law who helped craft the “religious freedom” legislation, said a “mistaken argument in the past doesn’t then delegitimize all later religious liberty arguments.”

If that were the case, he said, “then you couldn’t ever again make a religious argument.”

Business backlash

Among the loudest critics of the proposed amendment are some of the state’s largest companies.

Monsanto Co. and MasterCard Inc. spoke out quickly against the proposal. They were joined by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the state’s largest business advocacy organization, and its affiliates in Kansas City and St. Louis.

The NCAA and Big 12 Conference have also expressed concerns about the legislation, hinting that its passage could jeopardize future college athletic events in Missouri.

The Big 12 men’s basketball tournament, which Kansas City will host the next four years, brings in $13 million in revenue for the city each year. The conference’s chairman said the legislation could affect whether the Big 12 holds events in Missouri moving forward.

The NCAA has numerous major events scheduled in Kansas City in years to come, including the men’s Midwest regional basketball semifinals and final in March 2017. Additionally, Kansas City was awarded 14 NCAA championships through 2017, including Division I soccer and women’s volleyball.

In a statement to The Star, the NCAA said it expected “all people will be welcomed and treated with respect in cities that host our NCAA championships and events.”

When Indiana passed a “religious freedom” bill last year, it drew immediate outcry from the NCAA, which has its headquarters in Indianapolis. The state eventually repealed the legislation, but Indianapolis estimates it lost $60 million in convention and tourism business because of the controversy.

In Georgia, where a “religious freedom” bill has made its way to the desk of the state’s Republican governor, the National Football League has suggested its passage could cost Atlanta a chance to host a Super Bowl. Disney film studios has vowed to boycott the state if the bill becomes law.

The opposition from the business community is not surprising, Hinkle said, but it is perplexing.

“I do not understand why the NCAA or MasterCard or Monsanto want to go out of their way to offend their religious customers,” Hinkle said. “I just find that unbelievable. Do they not understand the millions of Missourians they are offending?”

House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, said said the legislation will be sent to a House committee for review after lawmakers return from spring break this week.

“We understand this is going to be an issue that’s going to cause intense feelings on both sides of the issue,” Richardson said. “So the House will take a hard look at it when we get back.”

If the Missouri House passes the measure, it would go on the statewide ballot later this year for voter approval.

“Let the people vote,” Hinkle said. “Let them decide. If you’re against it, make your case to the people.”

Those who accuse proponents of the “religious freedom” amendment of bigotry are engaging in “demagoguery,” Hinkle said.

“It’s certainly not fair. It’s a gross mischaracterization,” he said. “We are all equal under the law. But we will not yield our conscience to the government or any manmade group, because God is the only lord of our conscience.”

Rossi said that if the goal was protection of religious beliefs, the amendment “wouldn’t be limited to targeting LGBT people.”

“This is not about interfaith marriages, which a lot of religious people disagree with,” Rossi said. “It’s not about interracial marriages. It’s not about all these other religious beliefs; it’s only about LGBT people. It’s elevating one religious belief above all other religious beliefs. It’s not about religion. It’s about being uncomfortable with gay marriage, which is a legal right.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock