Government & Politics

Missouri debate over ‘religious freedom’ divides GOP’s most loyal constituencies

Sen. Bob Onder, a St. Charles Republican who is sponsoring the proposed amendment, presented Senate Joint Resolution 39 to the Missouri House Emerging Issues Committee on Tuesday night.
Sen. Bob Onder, a St. Charles Republican who is sponsoring the proposed amendment, presented Senate Joint Resolution 39 to the Missouri House Emerging Issues Committee on Tuesday night. Missouri House Communications

More than a dozen TV cameras lined up along the walls of the Missouri Capitol basement’s largest hearing room, and a capacity crowd jostled for seats in the audience.

Most had already been there for hours before the Missouri House Emerging Issues Committee finally came into session just after 8 p.m. Tuesday. They had arrived early hoping to get a seat and have their voices heard on what’s become the most controversial issue confronting state lawmakers this year: Senate Joint Resolution 39, a proposed “religious freedom” amendment to the Missouri Constitution.

For more than four hours, stretching past midnight, religious leaders, business executives, LGBT advocates and others took turns making their cases to the committee on the impact of amending the state’s constitution to protect certain individuals and businesses that cite religious beliefs to deny service to same-sex couples.

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“We’re not bigots,” Phil Hopper, pastor at Abundant Life Church in Lee’s Summit, told the committee Tuesday night. “We just disagree.”

The committee’s only openly gay member, Rep. Mike Colona, a St. Louis Democrat, said the legislation creates a constitutional right “to be mean to certain people based on who they love.”

“I’m beginning to grasp the concept that I’m never going to be able to convince the proponents of this bill that denying me access to products in the stream of commerce is discrimination,” Colona said.

At the heart of the debate Tuesday was a growing schism between two of the Republican Party’s most loyal constituencies.

Religious leaders implored lawmakers to approve the bill and send it to the ballot for voters to decide. Meanwhile, business executives said it would hurt the state’s economy by sending a signal to businesses and workers that Missouri is not a welcoming state.

The debate between the two factions dominated Tuesday’s discussion, rankling some Republicans who see the business community’s opposition as a betrayal.

“This is quite appalling,” said Sen. Bob Onder, a St. Charles Republican who is sponsoring the proposed amendment. “Corporations who make their money from folks like you and me who overwhelmingly support protecting religious freedom, that they’d turn around and use this against us. That’s appalling.”

Warren Erdman, vice president of administration and corporate affairs for Kansas City Southern, told the committee that clergy and houses of worship are already protected by the federal and state constitutions. But by enshrining new protections for private businesses in the Missouri Constitution, lawmakers are opening up a Pandora’s box of potential litigation.

Erdman provided the committee with a list of nearly 200 Kansas City 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.

“If we’d had another week,” he said, “we’d have had another 200.”

Rep. Anne Zerr, a St. Charles County Republican running for the Missouri Senate, repeatedly expressed concern that the amendment was not thoroughly vetted. She said the provisions relating to private businesses should be removed from the bill because they could damage Missouri’s reputation around the country and hurt a business’s ability to attract top talent.

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

Onder, however, said any alterations would kill the bill because it 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.

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. They point to lawsuits in other states faced by florists and bakers who declined to provide services for same-sex weddings.

If approved by the legislature, the bill would bypass Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, and go directly to the ballot later this year.

“Let the people decide,” Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican running for governor, told the committee Tuesday. “Why are we letting my friends in the corporate boardrooms dictate to us?”

Rep. Bill Lant, a Pineville Republican, said the question must be resolved by voters, not by lawmakers.

“We’ve heard some extremely powerful testimony on both sides of this thing,” Lant said. “The bottom line here is the people of Missouri need to make this decision.”

While much of the focus Tuesday night was on potential economic ramifications of the amendment, Sarah Rossi said the human ramifications can’t be ignored.

Rossi, director of advocacy and policy for the ACLU of Missouri, teared up as she laid out the ways in which she feared she and her partner could be denied service under the amendment.

The definition of “religious organizations” protected in the amendment includes religious schools, charities, hospitals and nursing homes, which Rossi said could lead to “so many different contexts in which a person can be discriminated against.”

“It’s not just dollars and cents,” she said. “It’s people’s lives.”

Much of Tuesday’s discussion was civil, although there were a few dust-ups. The most notable came when Onder quoted a famous poem written by pastor Martin Niemöller about the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany during the 1930s and the subsequent attempts to exterminate certain groups of people.

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist,” Onder said. “Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

As Onder recited the poem, Democrats grew livid. Eventually, House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat, stepped in.

“I simply can’t believe you’d reference Nazis to defend your legislation,” Hummel said. “It’s disgusting, and for an elected official to say that is appalling.”

Onder said he was simply referencing the poem to point out the danger of staying silent in the face of oppression. When individuals are forced to go against their religious convictions, “it’s not tolerance. It’s anti-religious tyranny.”

In the end, the committee adjourned just after midnight without taking a vote. Committee chairman Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican, said he has made no decision on how to move forward or when the committee will hold a vote.

“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,” Haahr said. “My job was to give it the most thorough and fair vetting possible.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock