Kansas response on gay marriage debated

1/28/2014

TOPEKA (AP) — Gay-marriage opponents urged Kansas legislators Tuesday to approve new legal protections for bakeries, photographers and others who refuse for religious reasons to supply goods or services for same-sex weddings, anticipating that federal courts could soon strike down the state's ban on such unions.

TOPEKA (AP) — Gay-marriage opponents urged Kansas legislators Tuesday to approve new legal protections for bakeries, photographers and others who refuse for religious reasons to supply goods or services for same-sex weddings, anticipating that federal courts could soon strike down the state's ban on such unions.

But gay-rights advocates said the bill backed by social conservatives and the Kansas Catholic Conference would permit individuals, businesses and groups to discriminate against gays and lesbians and encourage government officials to ignore court rulings favoring gay marriage.

The House Federal and State Affairs Committee's hearing on the bill came in an uncertain legal climate for Kansas and other states that ban gay marriage. Federal judges in Oklahoma and Utah recently struck down bans in those states. They're under the jurisdiction of the same federal appeals court as Kansas.

Under the bill, no individual, business or religious group with "sincerely held religious beliefs" could be required by "any governmental entity" to provide services, facilities, goods, employment or employment benefits related to any same-sex marriage or domestic partnership. The measure prohibits anti-discrimination lawsuits on such grounds.

Tim Schultz, state policy director for the American Religious Freedom Project, said the Kansas bill is similar to policies in states that have legalized gay marriage to protect individuals, groups and businesses with religious objections to same-sex unions. The project is part of a conservative think tank, the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, whose board includes evangelical, Catholic and Mormon leaders.

Schultz said a court ruling striking down the Kansas Constitution's ban on gay marriage would be a serious threat to religious liberties, absent the protections offered by the bill.

"This could have an unintended but very foreseeable consequence of placing Kansas' freedom law in a worse position than if Kansas had enacted same-sex marriage," he said.

But Lori Wagner, a retired Lawrence teacher who traveled to Iowa in 2012 to marry her female partner, said religious freedoms already are well-protected.

"Their right to believe their religion does not allow them to force their religious beliefs on others or to deny my existence or my life," she said after the hearing.

The committee was continuing its hearings Wednesday and hadn't set a date for acting.

A state agency in Oregon and an administrative law judge in Colorado recently found that bakers who refused to make wedding cakes for same-sex ceremonies had discriminated against the couples. Cases in other states have involved refusals to provide flowers or take photos of same-sex marriages.

State Rep. Charles Macheers, a conservative Shawnee Republican and attorney who's pushing the Kansas measure, acknowledged that he knows of no similar cases in Kansas. But supporters said they're trying to prevent similar problems.

Schultz said the bill would allow religiously-affiliated adoption agencies to continue declining to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried individuals.

Gay-rights advocates worry about a provision allowing government employees to invoke religious liberty protections to avoid involvement in providing services. The bill's backers said workers' ability to opt out still would be limited by federal civil rights laws and past court decisions.

But Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the state's leading gay-rights group, called it "just another way to maintain the discrimination against a minority of people in this state."

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