News (USA)

Kansas delays further action on religious freedom protections until next year

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas lawmakers will not consider enacting new legal protections this year for those who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds, but will debate the issue again in 2015, the state Senate’s top leader said Thursday.

Kansas state capitol in Topeka.
Kansas state capitol in Topeka.

Senate President Susan Wagle said she wasn’t persuaded by testimony during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing Thursday on existing religious liberties protections in the state constitution and in Kansas’ laws to have senators draft an alternative to the “religious freedom” measure that passed the House last month and received national criticism from businesses and gay rights groups.

The committee heard conflicting testimony from lawyers and legal scholars about whether Kansas already has enough legal protections for individuals, groups and businesses that refuse for religious reasons to provide goods or services for gay wedding ceremonies or same-sex marriages. The House bill was blasted by critics, who said it was much broader than advertised and would encourage discrimination against gays and lesbians, including by government employees.

Wagle, a Wichita Republican, and committee chairman Jeff King, an Independence Republican, had declared the House bill dead, but King nevertheless scheduled the Judiciary Committee hearing to examine the state’s legal landscape. King said Thursday he doesn’t plan to take up the issue again this year.

The issue is tricky for Wagle, King and fellow Republicans who control the Legislature because Christian evangelicals and socially conservative Catholics who are influential within the state’s GOP caucus and still want a bill to pass this year.

But businesses and business groups, also a core GOP constituency, want lawmakers to drop the issue, fearing protections for individual workers who refuse to be involved in gay weddings or marriages will interfere with business decisions. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a “religious freedom” bill in her state last week amid strong business opposition.

Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said legislators “absolutely” should pursue a bill next year because most Kansans support both “traditional” marriage and protecting religious liberties. She said the House bill is too flawed to fix.

Several attorneys and legal scholars bolstered gay rights advocates’ arguments, saying Kansas already provides ample legal protections against government fines or private lawsuits to state residents who act on their religious beliefs against gay marriage.

Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the state’s leading gay-rights group, said lawmakers should consider expanding state anti-discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation and gender identity if they’re going to discuss religious liberties protections for gay-marriage opponents.

But Helen Alvare, a George Mason University law professor, testified that legislators should enact new religious liberties protections now because, “the wreckage of state laws on marriage is all around us.”

Robert Noland, executive director of the conservative Kansas Family Policy Council, said it’s “profoundly frustrating” to suspend the debate until next year.

“We’re going to be making sure that our grassroots know about this, and we’ll be encouraging people to communicate with the committee as well and see if they can change that,” Noland said.

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