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Kan. House panel approves bill allowing discrimination based on religious beliefs

Kan. House panel approves bill allowing discrimination based on religious beliefs

Updated: 2:30 p.m. CST

TOPEKA, Kan. — An effort to shield individuals, groups and businesses from being forced to participate in same-sex marriages would essentially let government workers discriminate against the couples by citing a religious objection, gay-rights advocates argued Thursday as the measure advanced in the Legislature.

Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.
Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

The House Federal and State Affairs Committee approved a bill Thursday that braces for the federal courts striking down Kansas’ ban on gay marriage. The legislation would prohibit government sanctions and anti-discrimination lawsuits when religious beliefs are cited for refusing to recognize a marriage or civil union, or to provide goods, services, accommodations or employment benefits to a couple.

But the bill also extends its protections to individual state and local government employees, allowing them, because of their religious beliefs about marriage, to refuse to provide services in certain circumstances to gays and lesbians. The measure requires agencies to seek a work-around — if it isn’t an “undue hardship.” Critics worry that the language still encourages opting out and have zeroed in on it in trying to block its passage.

“This isn’t about wedding cakes. This isn’t about flowers,” Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the state’s leading gay-rights group, said after the committee’s vote. “This is about giving government employees the right to not do their jobs.”

The bill is similar to legislation in South Dakota and was introduced in Kansas last month after federal judges in Oklahoma and Utah recently invalidated those states’ gay-marriage bans. Kansas, Oklahoma and Utah all are part of the same federal appeals court circuit.

The committee’s voice vote sends the measure to the House for debate, possibly as early as next week. Supporters said it recognizes that under the state and federal constitutions, Kansans not only worship as they please but live out their religious beliefs in their public lives.

“We’ve gone from ‘please respect my beliefs and my rights’ to coercing individuals into participating in something that is against their beliefs,” said Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, a conservative Palco Republican. “We’re trying to protect those folks and their religious beliefs.”

Kansas law already prevented the state from recognizing same-sex marriages in 2005, when voters by a 70 percent margin approved an amendment to the state constitution banning such unions.

In addition, the state’s anti-discrimination laws don’t include sexual orientation or gender identity, and critics of the bill argue that businesses and individuals still could deny goods and services to gay couples even if the state’s ban on gay marriage were invalidated.

Supporters of the bill said claims that the bill will allow agencies to discriminate are far-fetched. They said the measure is even-handed, protecting the religious rights of gay-marriage supporters as well. Committee Chairman Steve Brunk, a conservative Wichita Republican, suggested that a business owner would be protected if, for religious reasons, he refused to make signs for anti-gay marriage picketers.

But the bill has the backing of organizations concerned about a growing public acceptance of gay marriage, including the Kansas Catholic Conference and the conservative Kansas Family Policy Council.

And Rep. Allan Rothlisberg, a conservative Grandview Plaza Republican, told fellow committee members, “There are certain things that are moral and certain things that or not.”

During a hearing last week, Rothlisberg, who wears a Christian cross pin with an American flag pattern on his jacket lapel, shook his head as a speaker said science suggests gays and lesbians are born with their sexual orientations.

“It’s not genetics,” he said after Thursday’s committee meeting. “If there were a gay gene, I wouldn’t have said anything.”

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