Thursday, December 18, 2014

Freedom? Or free to discriminate?

By DYLAN LYSEN, Herald Staff Writer | 2/14/2014

A bill aimed at protecting Kansans’ religious freedom with regard to beliefs about same-sex couples isn’t just for Christians, state Rep. Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville, said. It’s a safeguard for all religions.

“A lot of people think it’s just for Christian belief,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter what religious or deeply held beliefs you have, if you have deeply held beliefs, and it’s so deep that you think it’s life or death, then that needs to be protected.”

If passed, House Bill 2453 would give Kansas employees the right to withhold services based on religious beliefs about same-sex couples. It passed its final vote in the Kansas House of Representatives Wednesday on a 72-49 vote and now moves to the Senate. Many have spoken out against the bill, though, including advocacy groups for businesses and individuals, as well as generating an at-times fiery debate on social media, in Kansas.

Franklin County representatives were split on the vote. Jones voted to pass the bill, while state Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, voted against the measure. Jones said he supported the bill because it protects everyone’s religious freedom from government entities.

“To me, it’s a very simple bill,” Jones said. “It’s protecting people’s deeply held beliefs, if you want to call it religion or not.”

Jones said the bill is designed to protect businesses and individuals from being forced by a government entity to provide services that contradict their personal religious beliefs. Jones understands that someone who is gay might see the bill as discriminatory, he said, but that is not what the bill is intended to promote.

The bill is similar to laws being passed by more liberal states that allow same-sex couples the same benefits as married couples, Jones said.

“I believe it’s written in such a way it doesn’t discriminate against them,” Jones said. “If a person who identifies as gay, or has that deeply held belief, went in front of someone who didn’t want to serve them, I can understand why they may feel that way. But it is not intended, in my understanding of the bill, it is not intended in that way.”

Finch said he voted against the bill because it will do more harm than good and has the possibility of being challenged by federal judges. The bill will not add more freedom or protections because religious freedom already is protected by the U.S. Constitution and same-sex marriage already is illegal in Kansas, he said.

“It does not strengthen our current law, which prohibits same-sex marriages,” Finch said. “Finally, it will likely cost us hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in lawsuits that I think will strike down some or all of the law.”

If the bill becomes Kansas law, it would prohibit any government entity from requiring a religious group or individual to provide services, accommodations, facilities, goods, social services, employment or employment benefits related to marriage, domestic partnership or a civil union. Finch said the bill is too vague and would allow for government employees and private sector employees to refuse to do their jobs, as well as allow the government to refuse to serve taxpayers.

“As a lawyer, I think we should strive to have narrowly tailored bills that are specifically written to accomplish their stated purpose,” Finch said. “Narrow bills are less likely to end up in costly and burdensome lawsuits that waste taxpayer dollars and are more likely to survive judicial scrutiny.”

Caren Rugg, Ottawa, said the bill legalizes discrimination. She said it’s unfair for the state to expect homosexual residents of Kansas to pay state taxes then accept laws that prohibit them to receive the resources they have paid for through those taxes.

“This is giving state-sanctioned protection to discriminate against a class of people that they don’t like,” Rugg said. “They are claiming religious freedom on this, but hate is hate. They may think they’re justified, but they’re on the wrong side.”

Rugg was worried the bill would allow for medical professionals to deny service to homosexual patients because the bill is vague, she said. Rugg thinks the creation of the bill is a waste of time and will eventually be overturned by federal judges, she said.

“It’s totally unconstitutional, and it’s going to be overturned,” Rugg said. “But in the meantime we’ve wasted time, we’ve wasted state resources, and we’ve further divided the population of this state. There is absolutely nothing good to be said about this. Nothing.”

A coalition of small and large businesses in Kansas known as The Kansas Employers for Liberty Coalition united to fight the bill. Tim Witsman, president of the Wichita Independent Business Association (WIBA), said in a news release that the bill will hurt small businesses in Kansas.

“While we believe this bill may have been brought with good intentions of protecting religious freedom, the unintended consequences far outweigh the good,” Witsman said in the news release. “We want Kansas to be open for business. HB 2453 limits recruiting ability for workers and the state’s ability to bring new visitors and businesses to Kansas.”

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