Government & Politics

‘Religious freedom’ amendment is defeated in Missouri House committee

How the Missouri House committee voted on SJR39, the 'religious freedom' amendment

After a half hour of emotional testimony that left many in the room in tears, the House Emerging Issues Committee deadlocked 6-6 on Senate Joint Resolution 39, or SJR39.
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After a half hour of emotional testimony that left many in the room in tears, the House Emerging Issues Committee deadlocked 6-6 on Senate Joint Resolution 39, or SJR39.

It was a moment weeks in the making.

A crowded hearing room in the Missouri Capitol seemed to collectively hold its breath Wednesday as the House Emerging Issues Committee began its roll call vote on a “religious freedom” amendment to the state’s constitution.

When the final vote was cast, the committee had deadlocked. The bill had failed.

For nearly two months, lawmakers were inundated with phone calls, emails and testimonials on both sides of the bill, known as Senate Joint Resolution 39, or SJR39. Passed by the Senate last month, SJR39 would ask voters to amend the Missouri Constitution to provide protections for certain individuals or businesses that cite religious beliefs to refuse service to same-sex couples.

It quickly became the most contentious issue of the 2016 session.

Legal scholars debated SJR39’s unintended ramifications. Businesses argued it could damage Missouri’s economy. Religious leaders said its protections were desperately needed.

But Wednesday, it was the personal stories of two state representatives — a gay Democrat from St. Louis and a Republican retiree from northeast Missouri — that carried the day.

Rep. Mike Colona, a St. Louis Democrat, told the committee about how he first told his mother he was gay.

After hearing the news, Colona said she asked what she did wrong and whether he could be happy.

“Mom,” Colona said, “I’m going to be happy if you’re in my corner.”

Rep. Mike Colona, the legislature's only openly gay member, discusses defeat of the "religious freedom " amendment.

Approving SJR39 would mean “we’re telling our kids, grandkids, our brothers and sisters, that we have second-class citizens that don’t deserve the same rights that we do.”

Rep. Jim Hansen, a Pike County Republican, choked back tears as he asked lawmakers to “look into your heart in how you view this bill.”

“My wife and I talked about this for hours and hours and hours,” Hansen said. “My minister and I talked about this for hours. What he says, I believe. I put my faith in God, not in man. So I’m not here to judge anybody.”

Hansen ultimately cast the deciding vote, joining fellow Republicans Caleb Rowden of Columbia and Anne Zerr of St. Charles County and Democrats Colona, Jeremy LaFaver and Sharon Pace to defeat the bill.

“In the years to come, I am confident today’s action will be remembered as being on the right side of history,” said House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat.

Randy Hite, a gay activist in Kansas City, said he had been worried about what would happen if the bill passed.

“I was just relieved,” Hite said Wednesday. “Because I know how conservative Missouri is, and if it got approved to go to the voters, I wasn’t sure it could be stopped.”

The 50-year-old Kansas City native said he’s seen his hometown grow more tolerant over the decades and was glad the state didn’t reverse that.

“It makes my life a whole lot better.”

No bill garnered as much attention this year as SJR39, starting last month when Missouri Senate Democrats grabbed the national spotlight by staging a nearly 39-hour filibuster to try to kill it. In the end, Republicans turned to a rarely used procedural maneuver to quash the filibuster and pass the bill.

Attention then turned to the House, which has wrestled with the bill for more than a month.

The legislation may have won unanimous support among Republicans in the Senate, but it proved divisive in the House, pitting against each other two of the GOP’s most loyal constituencies.

Religious groups such as the Missouri Baptist Convention and Missouri Catholic Conference have been outspoken in support of SJR39. The business community, including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and large corporations like Monsanto and Burns & McDonnell, has led the opposition.

It also was opposed by civic figures and sports officials who feared that events would leave the state in protest.

Kathy Nelson, president of the Kansas City Sports Commission, was pleased.

“We appreciate that they took their time to consider all sides and explored unintended consequences of the amendment as it was written,” she said.

Kansas City is bidding this summer on NCAA championship events that will occur from 2018 to 2022. Two years ago, Kansas City was awarded 14 NCAA championships, and the Sprint Center will hold the NCAA Midwest Regional for men’s basketball next March.

In addition to basketball, Kansas City has been home recently to NCAA championships for soccer. It will host the women’s volleyball championship in 2018 and will be a women’s basketball regional site in 2018.

The sports commission estimated $51.1 million in economic activity from the championships and $3.1 million in state tax revenue.

The Big 12 has played 15 of its 20 men’s basketball tournaments in Kansas City. Additionally, the Big 12 has brought its women’s soccer and wrestling championships to Kansas City.

“Passage of the amendment would have made it very uncomfortable for organizations like ours to host events in Missouri,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said Wednesday.

Also on Wednesday, the NCAA Board of Governors adopted a requirement for event hosts to “demonstrate how they will provide an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination, plus safeguards the dignity of everyone involved in the event.”

“Religious freedom” bills have been passed recently in several states.

Outgoing Kansas State University president Kirk Schulz, chairman of the board of governors, said it was important to ensure that the diverse education community “will always enjoy the experience of competing and watching at NCAA championships without concerns of discrimination.”

On Monday, the fissure between GOP constituencies became clear during a behind-closed-doors meeting of the Missouri House Republican caucus. Both sides squared off for two hours, and those who attended questioned whether the party could find a way forward.

Proponents pushed SJR39 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.

But critics say SJR39’s impact would have been much wider than its supporters admit. Legal analysis of the proposal by Husch Blackwell attorney Harvey Tettlebaum concluded that the proposal’s vague wording could allow judges to refuse to marry same-sex couples or county employees to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

A group of law professors from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Washington University and St. Louis University went a step further, arguing that SJR39’s vague wording could provide legal protections in criminal proceedings too, such as trespassing, assault or even murder.

Shortly after the vote, the bill’s sponsor — Republican Sen. Bob Onder of St. Charles County — conceded defeat.

“I am deeply disappointed that Missourians will not have the opportunity to vote on protecting religious freedom,” Onder said in a statement.

Ryan Johnson, president of the conservative nonprofit Missouri Alliance for Freedom, slammed Republicans who helped defeat SJR39.

“It is unfortunate that Republican representatives who typically campaign as conservatives refused to govern that way in today’s House Emerging Issues Committee,” Johnson said, later adding: “This is the opening salvo in a long war. We are not finished. While today’s results are not optimal, we are not going anywhere.”

Wednesday’s vote does not mean the bill is completely dead. According to the Missouri House clerk’s office, since SJR39 failed to win committee approval, it is now in the clerk’s possession. To move the bill forward would take 82 votes, a constitutional majority of the House.

Despite that possibility, opponents celebrated SJR39’s likely defeat.

“What you witnessed here today,” Colona said, “was a reflection of what Missourians are really all about.”

The Star’s Blair Kerkhoff contributed to this report.

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock