TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas’ governor told state government agencies Tuesday that they can’t punish ministers or religious groups for opposing same-sex marriage, and critics said he is sanctioning discrimination even as the state extends new benefits to gay and lesbian couples.
Gov. Sam Brownback issued an executive order in response to last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the nation. Brownback’s order said the “imposition” of gay marriage could lead to “potential infringements” of religious liberties.
The conservative Republican governor’s action is designed to shield churches, clergy, religious leaders and religious groups refusing to perform same-sex weddings or provide goods, services or accommodations for them. The order includes religious organizations providing social services for the state and prevents state agencies from altering contracts, changing a group’s tax-exempt status or denying grants, loans, licenses or accreditation.
Kansas had banned same-sex marriage and refused to recognize such unions from other states. Brownback has been a vocal supporter of those policies, which were bolstered by an amendment to the state constitution approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2005.
Brownback issued his order hours after his administration said it is allowing married gays and lesbians to change their names on their driver’s licenses and permitting the health insurance plan for state workers to offer coverage to same-sex spouses.
“We have a duty to govern and to govern in accordance with the Constitution as it has been determined by the Supreme Court decision,” Brownback said in a statement. “We also recognize that religious liberty is at the heart of who we are as Kansans and Americans, and should be protected.”
In addition to religious liberty protections in the U.S. and state constitutions, a 2013 Kansas law says state or local agencies can’t substantially limit someone’s exercise of religion without a compelling reason. The statute allows lawsuits to challenge government actions.
Critics of Brownback’s order said clergy and churches already are protected from being forced to perform marriages outside their faith traditions without it.