Clarity in Kansas: Lawmaker Says State Senate Won’t Back Discrimination Against Same-Sex Couples

Given Kansas’ history of pushing this sort of legislation, I doubt it’s the last we’ve heard from the state legislature regarding laws that target same-sex couples for unfair treatment.

In a rare moment of clarity, some Kansas lawmakers are reportedly hesitant to vote for a measure that would define “religious liberty” as a license to discriminate against same-sex couples.

The Kansas House of Representatives voted 72-49 last week in favor of a bill that would permit any individual, group or private business to turn away same-sex couples if providing a service would violate their religious beliefs.

This measure is so radical it would even apply to government employees. The idea was to make it possible for clerks in county courthouses to be able to deny services (like marriage licenses) to same-sex couples, if, at some point in the future, the Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage nationwide.

In areas dominated by the Religious Right, the measure would effectively permit local government and its representatives to force their religion onto others – and even deny people services they’re entitled to under law. (Legally, that’s a very dubious proposition.)

Sadly, this sort of diabolical discrimination is nothing new in Kansas; Gov. Sam Brownback (R) previously backed legislation that would have broadly legalized discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons – as long as it was done in the name of religion. (Kansas also has a constitutional amendment that bars same-sex marriage.)

Given the political climate in the Sunflower State, it came as something of a surprise when the International Business Times (IBT) reported yesterday that some members of Kansas’ State Senate are a little uncomfortable supporting this religiously motivated measure. Last week, Senate President Susan Wagle (R-Wichita) vowed not to pass the bill in its current form because she doesn’t want to give license to those who would discriminate.

“A strong majority of my members support laws that define traditional marriage, protect religious institutions and protect individuals from being forced to violate their personal moral values,” Wagle said in a statement. “However, my members also don’t condone discrimination.”

IBT said Senate Republicans will amend the bill if it ends up on the Senate floor, seeking to remove the provisions that would permit discrimination by government employees as well as those who work for secular, for-profit corporations.

That’s a start. Of course, the bill would still allow rank forms of discrimination by private businesses. And, given Kansas’ history of pushing this sort of legislation, I doubt it’s the last we’ve heard from the state legislature regarding laws that target same-sex couples for unfair treatment.

What’s even worse, though, is that Kansas is not the only state currently exploring so-called “conscience bills” that would grant broad protections to people who want to use a “religious freedom” claim to discriminate against others or deny them services. These laws, which take different forms, are pending in more than 12 states.

What’s behind these laws? Part of it is due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year striking down most of the Defense of Marriage Act and the panic Religious Right groups are feeling as they lose one case after another in this area.

The so-called “contraceptive mandate” of the Affordable Care Act is also a factor. Religious Right legal groups and their allies in the Catholic hierarchy are using that controversy over the mandate to push for broad exemptions that would give people the right to refuse to do certain aspects of their jobs (such as a pharmacist filling a prescription for a medication he disapproves of on religious grounds) – even if that action harms another person’s rights.

Some of these matters are being resolved by the courts right now. But the Religious Right and its allies in many state legislatures aren’t willing to wait for those rulings. They are pushing bills now that would radically redefine religious liberty, giving one group of the people a “conscience” right to discriminate against another.

They were stopped in Kansas – for now. But something tells me we haven’t seen the last of this. We need to keep a careful eye on every state where these bills have been proposed.