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Kansas same-sex marriage opponents to revive religious freedom debate

Kansas same-sex marriage opponents to revive religious freedom debate

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas legislators will face renewed pressure next year to provide additional legal protections to those who want to avoid accommodating same-sex couples for religious reasons in the wake of federal courts nationwide invalidating state gay marriage bans.

A “religious freedom” measure failed in the Legislature earlier this year, even though conservative Republicans control both chambers and top GOP leaders strongly support the state constitution’s ban on gay marriage.

The debate pitted business groups against conservative religious leaders, a divide that aided gay rights advocates who argued that the legislation was more sweeping and discriminatory than advertised.

Same-sex marriage opponents argue that Kansas should shield their religious liberties before the state’s ban falls. The prospect is possible after the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which also has jurisdiction over Kansas, struck down Utah’s ban last month.

The Rev. Terry Fox, a prominent Southern Baptist minister in Wichita and a leader in getting voters to approve Kansas’ gay marriage ban in 2005, said he and other pastors are determined to get legislators to take up the issue after reconvening in January.

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The Kansas Catholic Conference also views additional legal protections as vital.

“We are not going to let it die. We are very committed,” Fox said. “The Body of Christ is a powerful movement when it comes together.”

Gay rights advocates also anticipate a legislative debate next year. Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the state’s leading gay rights group, said that even without the 10th Circuit’s decision, at least a handful of social conservatives would want pass a law that treats gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Kansas residents as “second-class citizens.”

“I don’t think they’re going to stop their attacks,” Witt said.

The Kansas Constitution prohibits “interference with the rights of conscience.” And 2013 state law says that if government burdens someone’s “exercise of religion” with an action or regulation, it must impose as few limits as possible and have another, “compelling” interest to protect.

One can go to court to challenge a government action or invoke the law as part of a legal defense.

KansasThis year’s proposal, which was similar to one Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed in February, would have barred fines or lawsuits when individuals, groups and businesses cite religious beliefs in refusing to provide goods, services, accommodations and employment benefits related to a marriage, civil union, domestic partnership or a celebration of such relationships. The measure also would have protected religiously affiliated adoption agencies that refuse to place children with gay couples.

The state House approved it in February, but critics said the measure was written broadly enough to allow individual company employees or government workers to refuse to provide lawful services.

Supporters disputed that, but Senate GOP leaders blocked consideration of the bill amid opposition from business groups, which worried that companies would be unable to discipline employees for violating their business policies.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, promised the issue would be debated during the 2015 session, but resistance remains.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King noted that the 10th Circuit put its ruling on hold – leaving Kansas’ gay marriage ban intact – and argued that lawmakers should wait on writing any new religious freedom law until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on gay marriage.

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“We have pretty solid religious freedom protections already,” said King, an Independence Republican.

But Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, said “the writing is pretty much on the wall,” after the U.S. Supreme Court declared last year that the federal government couldn’t refuse to recognize gay marriages from states where it is legal.

Schuttloffel said he’s concerned about gay rights supporters and court decisions equating opposition to gay marriage with bigotry. Religious freedom means people can live out their faith in public, not just worship in private, he said.

“We think the need for the Legislature to protect people’s religious freedom is more urgent than ever,” Schuttloffel said.

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