Now that marriage equality has come to parts of Kansas, conservative state lawmakers want to revive the “license to discriminate” bill that died in the legislature earlier this year, saying it’s necessary to keep businesses from having to provide goods or services for same-sex weddings if they violate the owner’s religious beliefs.
“This is an ongoing conversation. We’re working on the best way to protect Kansans’ First Amendment rights,” Rep. Steve Brunk, a Republican, told Wichita TV station KWCH this week.
It’s not clear how similar the bill would be to the one that failed last session, The Kansas City Star reports. That one would have extended to government employees, and if that were the case in a new bill, it would mean, for instance, that county officials could refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and judges could refuse to perform their wedding ceremonies.
Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, also a Republican, said he thinks any new legislation should include government employees. “Should a judge be required to perform a ceremony? A question for you,” Fitzgerald told the Star. “The basic question is regardless of your employment should you be forced, compelled, coerced, made under force of law or threat of suit, to go against your own morals?”
As for the private sector, he said, “What you’ve got is we’ll sue you and take everything you can get unless you participate in and help us celebrate what you consider to be gravely evil. So your freedom of religion is exactly, mmm, pay up.”
LGBT rights advocates said the type of discrimination these legislators want to enshrine in law is similar to discrimination against other groups that is now illegal. “Take out the word ‘gay’ and put any other word in there and is it acceptable?” Kerry Wilks, a plaintiff in the federal suit challenging the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, told the Star. “Put ‘Muslim,’ put ‘African American,’ put an ‘interracial couple’… does it sound better? Does it sound worse. We’re not talking about churches. We’re not talking about forcing a minister to marry someone in a church. That’s protected.”
Added Tom Witt, executive director of LGBT rights group Equality Kansas: “Should businesses that do business with the public have to serve everybody? Yes. That’s a principle of American society. You are open for business, then you’re open for business to everybody. And you don’t get to choose what classes of people you’re not going to serve.”
After a federal judge struck down the marriage ban last month, about a quarter of Kansas counties are issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but the rest are resisting as the state appeals the decision and questions how broadly it applies. Also, Gov. Sam Brownback has directed state agencies not to recognize these marriages. This week the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas asked a federal court to block the state from enforcing the anti–marriage equality law.
As marriage equality advances around the nation, several states have reacted with “license to discriminate” legislation. Mississippi this year enacted such a law, while in Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a similar measure. The Michigan House of Representatives has approved a “license to discriminate” bill and sent it to the state Senate.
In South Carolina, a legislator has filed a bill for consideration in next year’s session that would let public employees opt out of participating in same-sex marriages without facing a penalty. Conservative lawmakers in North Carolina say they’ll propose such a bill as well.