Kansas Bill Would Allow Businesses to Discriminate Against Same-Gender Couples

Updated: 2/24/14, 9:15 a.m. ET with news that the Kansas State Senate will not vote on the bill.

By Albert Lin

Kansas’ House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill that gives any person the right to refuse service to someone based on the person’s “sincerely held” religious beliefs—essentially allowing people to discriminate against same-gender couples.

House Bill 2453 reads: “No individual or religious entity shall be required by any governmental entity to do any of the following, if it would be contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender:

“(a) Provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; provide counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits, related to, or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement;

“(b) solemnize any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement; or

“(c) treat any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement as valid.”

The final tally was 72 in favor, 49 against.

Republican supporters ostensibly say that the bill is designed to protect religious freedom. “Discrimination is horrible. It’s hurtful,” State Representative Charles Macheers said on the floor, according to the Wichita Eagle. “It has no place in civilized society, and that’s precisely why we’re moving this bill. There have been times throughout history where people have been persecuted for their religious beliefs because they were unpopular. This bill provides a shield of protection for that.”

But Democratic opponents say the bill all but sanctions discrimination against same-gender couples. (Notice that while the bill cites religious beliefs “regarding sex or gender,” the protected actions specifically mention marriage, domestic partnership and civil union.) Government agencies are still required to make services available, but individual clerks in those agencies can refuse to serve same-gender couples.

“Every single rural county in this state has same-sex couples,” said Thomas Witt, Executive Director of the Kansas Equality Coalition. “Government officials in those counties are going to be able to turn them away from services that they deserve as taxpayers.”

Interestingly, a Republican State Representative, Don Hill, introduced an amendment to remove government employees from the bill, but that measure failed to pass.

Witt criticized House Democrats for not being more outspoken against the bill. The Eagle says that Democrats avoided discussing the impact of the bill on the LGBT community and instead focused on how the bill would hurt the “Kansas brand.” House Minority Leader Paul Davis released a statement suggesting that the state’s economic woes were of greater concern. “Every day we spend on issues like this is one day less this Legislature and Governor has to tackle the real, growing crises at hand,” Davis said.

Kansas is one of 33 states that does not allow gay marriage, and one of 29 states with a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to a man and a woman.

The bill was drafted in response to recent federal court decisions striking down same-gender-marriage bans in Utah and Oklahoma.

A week later, the State Senate elected not to bring HB 2453 to a vote. “We’re not going to work the bill,” said Senate Vice President Jeff King, a Republican. “House Bill 2453 is kaput.” King did say that a Senate committee will hold hearings next month to explore the issue of religious liberty.

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