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Kan. House gives initial OK on bill to allow discrimination against gay couples

Tuesday, February 11, 2014
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Updated: 5:00 p.m. CST

TOPEKA, Kan. — The state’s business climate would suffer if legislators grant special legal protections to Kansas residents, companies and groups that object to gay marriage for religious reasons, critics argued Thursday in a failed attempt to block the plan from advancing.

Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

The Kansas House gave first-round approval to the so-called “religious freedom” proposal to shield people who don’t want to participate in same-sex weddings should the courts eventually overturn the state’s gay-marriage ban.

The bill would prohibit government sanctions or anti-discrimination lawsuits against Kansans citing religious beliefs about marriage for refusing to recognize a union or to provide goods, services, accommodations or employment benefits to couples.

After approving the measure 72-42, the House is set to take another, final vote Wednesday, when it’s expected to pass and go to the Senate. Supporters described the bill as a narrowly drawn measure that allow s Kansans to live out their religious beliefs when it comes to marriage.

Critics argue the bill would encourage discrimination against gays and lesbians. They also zeroed in on language extending some legal protections to individual workers and government employees, even if their views and the boss’ conflict.

Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican, said small business owners have told her they’re concerned that they’d be unable to enforce their own policies.

“They are stakeholders and have an interest in this particular piece of legislation,” she said.

Rep. John Wilson, a Lawrence Democrat, said enacting the measure will drive away businesses committed to equal treatment for gays, lesbians, bi-sexual and transgender employees.

“We must create a pro-business environment,” he said, adding that non-discrimination policies are routine for large companies.

Business groups didn’t testify on the measure during House committee hearings. The bill says if an individual employee or government worker cites religious views about marriage in refusing to provide a legal service, an employer must find a work-around, if it is not an undue burden.

Supporters of the bill said any scenarios involving widespread discrimination are far-fetched. They also said nothing in the bill prevents a business owner from disciplining an employee for violating company policies.

Meanwhile, backers of the bill said the state needs to act quickly. Federal judges in Oklahoma and Utah recently struck down those states’ gay-marriage bans, and they’re covered by the same federal appeals court circuit as Kansas.

“It’s substantially likely that within a year or so, court action will be taken that will change the definition of marriage in the state of Kansas,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican who opposes gay marriage.

Backers haven’t cited cases in Kansas of threatened lawsuits or government sanctions over someone’s refusal to provide goods or services to same-sex couples.

But a state agency in Oregon and a Colorado administrative law judge recently found that bakers refusing to make wedding cakes for same-sex ceremonies had discriminated against the couples, though neither state recognizes gay marriages. Cases in other states have involved refusals to provide flowers or take photos.

Kansas’ anti-discrimination laws don’t cover bias based on sexual orientation or gender identification. But Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, said if a court strikes down the state’s gay-marriage ban, “the legal landscape dramatically changes.”

“The whole point of this is to provide some clarity,” he said.

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