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States plan renewed debate on LGBT rights, religious freedom

States plan renewed debate on LGBT rights, religious freedom
With same-sex marriage now legal nationwide, lawmakers in numerous states are preparing for a new round of battles in 2016 over whether to grant discrimination protections to LGBT people or religious exemptions to nonprofits and businesses that object to gay marriage.

The tussle over civil rights and religious freedoms is one of several hot-button issues that could drive states in opposite policy directions, as lawmakers seek to appeal to voters during a year in which more than 5,800 state legislative seats will be up for election.

Republicans hold majorities in two-thirds of the states’ legislative chambers, meaning they get to set the agenda. Those priorities could include attempts to exempt businesses from providing wedding-related services to gay couples, expand gun rights and further restrictions on abortions.

Democrats, meanwhile, will likely be pushing in the opposite direction.

“What we’ve got is division,” said William Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

He predicts there will be a “significant number of bills” seeking to advance either religious rights or the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

“You’ve got the Democratic states reacting very differently, a lot of the time, than the Republican states to these issues,” Pound said.

Influential national groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Family Research Council are preparing for a new round of legislative debates after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that states must allow same-sex marriage. Their focus now is on the effect of that ruling.

There are 22 states with laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and 21 with laws limiting the government’s ability to burden the free exercise of religion. But just four states — Connecticut, Rhode Island, Illinois and New Mexico — have both.

The ACLU will be seeking to expand the list of places barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s targeting at least a half dozen states — Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — that have Republican-led legislatures and also may be pivotal in presidential elections.

The Supreme Court’s decision “certainly provides momentum on the issue,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat from the Pittsburgh area who has been unsuccessfully sponsoring gay rights bills for more than a decade.

He said challenges remain and pointed to a November referendum in which Houston voters rejected a city ordinance extending nondiscrimination protections to gay and transgender people.

The Family Research Council, which opposed the Houston ordinance, is supporting state measures that would grant broad protections “from government discrimination” against people “who have a sincere belief — religious or not — in natural marriage,” said Quena Gonzalez, the group’s director of state and local affairs.

Missouri House Majority Leader Mike Cierpiot said many of his Republican colleagues were alarmed by the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.

“I think there’s a lot of states that are looking at this and seeing what can be done to make sure that religious freedoms are respected,” said Cierpiot, a Republican from suburban Kansas City.

An intense debate over gay rights already is shaping up in Indiana, where a religious-rights law passed last spring thrust the state into the national spotlight over concerns it could sanction discrimination against gays and lesbians. A coalition of 150 businesses is backing legislation to ban discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

An LGBT rights proposal outlined by Indiana Senate Republicans would grant broad exceptions intended to protect small business owners and religious schools, nonprofits and adoption agencies. For example, a wedding-related business with fewer than four employees could refuse to do work for a same-sex marriage.

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