Barbara Shelly

Barbara Shelly: Don’t make Missouri the test case for anti-gay bill

The downtown Power & Light District in Kansas City comes alive during the Big 12 Tournament, but a Missouri legislative measure could put that at risk.
The downtown Power & Light District in Kansas City comes alive during the Big 12 Tournament, but a Missouri legislative measure could put that at risk.

As someone who works in downtown Kansas City, I look forward to the Big 12 basketball tournament as a rite of spring. Nothing livens up a place like swarms of college basketball fans in crazy gear and high spirits.

Would the tournament and other NCAA events be placed at risk if Missouri passes the meanspirited “religious freedom” bill working its way through the General Assembly?

Honestly, I don’t think we want to find out.

College sports officials say they are watching closely what happens with Senate Joint Resolution 39. Defenders of the measure say they’re bluffing. But tournaments were ready to pull out of Indiana when it came close to passing a similar measure last year.

And let’s listen to Dan Beebe, a former Big 12 commissioner. “I think Kansas City could count on not getting these events,” he told The Star’s Blair Kerkhoff.

A defining part of Kansas City’s identity as a college sports town is at risk. So are meetings and tourism and even jobs around the state. And for what?

SJR 39 makes a big deal about protecting clergy and religious places from being penalized by state or local governments if they refuse to perform a same-sex marriage or accommodate one on their property.

Fine. Almost no one thinks a church should be forced to violate its doctrine by acquiescing to a marriage of two men or two women. And in fact that would never happen in Missouri. Those places are protected by the First Amendment and a long list of court decisions.

The authors of the measure know this. But they need the supposed religious protections to legitimize the actual intent of the resolution, which is enabling people who don’t respect their gay and lesbian neighbors to deny them services without fear of consequences.

Yes, the dreaded “wedding cake” controversy has come to Missouri. I only wonder why it took so long.

When these so-called religious freedom measures started popping up in Kansas, Indiana and elsewhere, I at first wondered why people found them so dangerous.

If I owned a bakery, I wouldn’t want to decorate a cake with a swastika symbol, for instance. Shouldn’t businesses get to decide which requests to honor?

Well, there’s a difference between denying people a service because of what they want, and refusing to serve them because of who they are.

I could have a blanket policy against decorating cakes with swastika symbols, or trains, or even flowers, and I wouldn’t be discriminating against anybody. But a policy targeting gays and lesbians discriminates against those people based on their sexuality.

The Missouri legislature already refuses to pass a law protecting LGBT citizens from being fired or denied housing or otherwise treated unfairly. With SJR 39 it perversely seeks to protect businesses that choose to discriminate.

While conversation centers around floral arrangements and wedding chapels, the measure is written broadly enough to raise the possibility that same-sex couples could be denied adoption services, housing or even health care, using religion as a guise.

The Missouri measure is not about religious freedom at all. It is about backlash to last summer’s Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage. It is about out-of-state groups that exist to push these so-called religious freedom bills. It is about primary races for statewide offices, especially governor and attorney general, and the scramble to appear more conservative than one’s opponent.

But wait, Missouri is a pro-business state, right?

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the chambers in Kansas City and St. Louis want SJR 39 stopped. Businesses like Monsanto and MasterCard have objected to the measure.

In other states governors have threatened or carried through on vetoes of so-called religious freedom bills once the economic consequences became clear.

Jay Nixon, Missouri’s Democratic governor, would, too, but he won’t get the chance. Sponsors of SJR 39 have filed it as a resolution for a constitutional amendment. They’re gambling that voters would pass it on a statewide ballot later this year. The Missouri Baptist Convention already is gearing up to get the faithful to the polls.

The GOP leaders of the Missouri House could stop this incendiary measure in its tracks. They could stall it or send it to an unfriendly committee. Or they could encourage amendments that would preserve the language protecting clergy and houses of religion but delete the provisions that give businesses a license to discriminate.

Missouri shouldn’t be the test case for what would happen if one of these “religious freedom” bills becomes law, enshrined in the state Constitution no less.

Because we would likely find that businesses and meeting planners aren’t bluffing. Missouri would be relegated to backwater status. And it would be very hard to undo the damage.