TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas proposal for shielding florists, bakers and others from being forced to help with same-sex weddings would let government workers discriminate against gay couples by citing personal religious beliefs, gay-rights advocates argued Thursday as legislators advanced the measure.
The House Federal and State Affairs Committee approved a bill that braces for the federal courts striking down Kansas' ban on gay marriage. The legislation would prohibit government sanctions and anti-discrimination lawsuits when individuals, groups and businesses cite religious beliefs for refusing to recognize a marriage or civil union, or to provide goods, services, accommodations or employment benefits to a couple.
But the bill also extends its protections to individual state and local government employees, allowing them, because of their religious beliefs about marriage, to refuse to provide services in certain circumstances to gays and lesbians. The measure requires agencies to seek a work-around — if it isn't an "undue hardship." Critics worry that the language still encourages opting out and have zeroed in on it in trying to block its passage.
"This isn't about wedding cakes. This isn't about flowers," Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the state's leading gay-rights group, said after the committee's vote. "This is about giving government employees the right to not do their jobs."
The bill was introduced in Kansas last month after federal judges in Oklahoma and Utah recently invalidated those states' gay-marriage bans. Kansas, Oklahoma and Utah all are part of the same federal appeals court circuit.
The committee's voice vote sends the measure to the House for debate, possibly as early as next week. Supporters said it recognizes that under the state and federal constitutions, Kansans not only worship as they please but live out their religious beliefs in their public lives.
"We've gone from 'please respect my beliefs and my rights' to coercing individuals into participating in something that is against their beliefs," said Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, a conservative Palco Republican. "We're trying to protect those folks and their religious beliefs."
Provisions in the Kansas bill meant to protect clergy, other individuals, churches, groups and businesses are similar to legislation that failed this year in South Dakota, though the effort didn't specifically cover government employees.
Last week, the conservative-leaning, Washington-based American Religious Freedom Project, said the Kansas bill is akin to religious-objection policies in 11 states where lawmakers have legalized gay marriage, though the protections vary widely.
Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based group supporting gay-marriage, said lawmakers in multiple states have considered broader "religious freedom" measures, including Arizona, Hawaii and New Jersey.
"We are seeing reactions across the country to marriage for same-sex couples," Warbelow said.
A state agency in Oregon and a Colorado administrative law judge recently found that bakers refusing to make wedding cakes for same-sex ceremonies had discriminated against the couples, though neither state recognizes gay marriages. Cases in other states have involved refusals to provide flowers or take photos.
Kansas law already prevented the state from recognizing same-sex marriages in 2005, when voters by a 70 percent margin approved an amendment to the state constitution banning such unions.
In addition, the state's anti-discrimination laws don't include sexual orientation or gender identity, and critics of the bill argue that businesses and individuals still could deny goods and services to gay couples even if the state's ban on gay marriage were invalidated.
Supporters of the bill said claims that the bill will allow agencies to discriminate are far-fetched.
And they said the measure is even-handed, protecting the religious rights of gay-marriage supporters as well. Committee Chairman Steve Brunk, a conservative Wichita Republican, suggested that a business owner would be protected if, for religious reasons, he refused to make signs for anti-gay marriage picketers.
But the bill has the backing of organizations concerned about a growing public acceptance of gay marriage, including the Kansas Catholic Conference and the conservative Kansas Family Policy Council.
And Rep. Allan Rothlisberg, a conservative Grandview Plaza Republican, told fellow committee members, "There are certain things that are moral and certain things that or not."
During a hearing last week, Rothlisberg, who wears a Christian cross pin with an American flag pattern on his jacket lapel, shook his head as a speaker said science suggests gays and lesbians are born with their sexual orientations.
"It's not genetics," he said after Thursday's committee meeting. "If there were a gay gene, I wouldn't have said anything."