Missouri’s dangerous religious exemption measure advances

Missouri Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe talks with reporters as Republican Sen. Bob Onder looks on Wednesday, March 9, 2016, at the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City. Republican senators used a rare procedural move to shut off a Democratic filibuster and force a vote Wednesday on a proposed state constitutional amendment sponsored by Onder. The measure would prohibit government penalties against some businesses and individuals who cite religious beliefs while declining to provide wedding-related services to same-sex couples.

Missouri Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe talks with reporters as Republican Sen. Bob Onder looks on Wednesday, March 9, 2016, at the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City. Republican senators used a rare procedural move to shut off a Democratic filibuster and force a vote Wednesday on a proposed state constitutional amendment sponsored by Onder. The measure would prohibit government penalties against some businesses and individuals who cite religious beliefs while declining to provide wedding-related services to same-sex couples. AP Photo/David Lieb

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri‘s Republican-led Senate on Wednesday advanced a proposal to add greater religious protections to the state Constitution for some business owners and individuals opposed to gay marriage after Democrats stalled a vote for about 37 hours.

The move marked an end to a stalemate emblematic of a national debate over balancing civil rights and religious liberties following last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.

The proposed amendment to the Missouri Constitution would prohibit government penalties against those who cite “a sincere religious belief” while declining to provide goods or services of “expressional or artistic creation” for same-sex marriage ceremonies or celebrations.

The measure was revised Wednesday to specifically state that florists and photographers would be protected and to clarify that it applies to services provided for a reception taking place around the same time as a wedding ceremony.

The measure comes after bakers and florists have faced legal challenges in other states for declining to provide services for same-sex weddings due to their religious beliefs.

“No one should be compelled to make a work with their own hands that’s offensive to their beliefs,” Republican sponsor Sen. Bob Onder said during debate on the measure.

Democrats fought the measure for days, saying it would allow discrimination against same-sex couples and could hurt the state economy.

Republicans used a rare procedural move early Wednesday to force an end to the Democratic filibuster that started Monday afternoon and had veered into unrelated topics — such as “Star Wars” trivia, senators’ families and how long it had been since they had showered. Senators then gave the measure first-round approval by a 23-9 vote.

“The debate was starting to meander,” Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard told reporters. “We couldn’t come to a negotiated settlement. … We had to move on.”

A second Senate vote is expected Thursday to send the measure to the House, where Republican leaders also have expressed support. If passed by both chambers, the proposal would appear before voters either on the August primary or November general election ballot. It would bypass Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who opposed the measure.

“Rewriting our state’s constitution to condone discrimination would be contrary to our values and harmful to our economy,” Nixon said Wednesday in an emailed statement.

Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny, of St. Louis, said it’s unclear how Democrats will respond to the Republicans’ move. They will have another chance to filibuster when the measure is brought up for a final Senate vote.

“Why are we allowing any kind of discrimination?” Keaveny said. “In this case, we’re almost encouraging it.”

Missouri’s largest statewide business organizations have taken no position on the measure, though the St. Louis Regional Chamber has raised concerns.

Some businesses, including St. Louis agricultural giant Monsanto, have opposed it.

Republican lawmakers in various states also have pushed religious protection measures following the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. Onder said the Missouri measure is more narrowly crafted than some that have faced a backlash — for example, a proposal in Indiana that was criticized by businesses.

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