Updated - 3:40 p.m. ET:
The Kansas House easily passed legislation Wednesday that would grant individuals, groups, and businesses the right to refuse services and recognition to same-sex couples based on their religious beliefs about marriage — sending the bill to the state Senate.
House lawmakers gave final approval to the measure, House Bill 2453, the 2014 Religious Freedom Act, in a 72-49 vote — just a day after voting to advance the bill in a preliminary vote. As many as 19 Republicans voted against the bill, according to Thomas Witt, executive director at Kansas Equality.
“I vote ‘no,’” said Republican Rep. Don Hineman on the House floor. “My closely held religious belief is that God is love.”
Under the proposed legislation, private and public employees would be able to refuse services, benefits, and recognition based on their religious beliefs about marriage, specifically as it relates to marriage for same-sex couples without having to fear anti-discrimination lawsuits.
But Witt contends the bill is meant to grant government employees and agencies the ability to discriminate against LGBT people — especially because private companies are already able to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity under the state’s human rights law, he told BuzzFeed.
“This bill is about government employees,” Witt said. “Everything [backers] are saying about people being able to sue by refusing to bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples is a smokescreen. Our big argument against this bill is that it gives government employees the legal right to deny that our marriages exist.”
Government agencies and nonreligious entities would still be required to offer any benefits and services afforded under current state law, but individual employees — such as county clerks — could refuse to serve same-sex couples if that would violate their religious beliefs on marriage. Those entities “would be required to promptly provide another employee to provide the service or otherwise ensure the service was provided, if it could be done without undue hardship to the employer,” according to the bill.
Witt said “undue hardship” is ill-defined and could result in some same-sex couples having to travel to different counties where government employees are willing to serve them and that this “violates every notion to due process,” he said. For example, a same-sex couple seeking a divorce could be denied by a county official who refuses to recognize them as married — or vital records officials could deny listing same-sex spouses on death certificates and birth certificates, he added.
The law specifically states that those with religious objections would not be required to, “Provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; provide counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits,” related to marriage.
The bill goes on to say that “no individual or religious entity” will be required to “solemnize any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement” or “treat any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement as valid.”
GOP backers of the measure say it is a response to recent federal court rulings that have overturned bans on marriage for same-sex couples in states like Utah and Oklahoma and would protect the religious freedoms of those who are opposed to marriage equality, but opponents from both sides of the aisle say it is discriminatory.
“House Bill 2453 has created perceptions of promoting discrimination,” said Rep. Shanti Gandhi, a Republican, who voted against the bill. “This is quite evident to me as I listened to discussions on the floor and emails I received yesterday. [The bill] creates a fertile ground for lawsuits.”
Equality Kansas and the Kansas Equality PAC condemned the House’s action shortly after the bill passed.
“Kansans across the state are rightly appalled that legislators are spending their efforts to pass yet another piece of legislation that seeks to enshrine discrimination against gay and lesbian people into law,” said Sandra Meade, state chair of Equality Kansas. “HB 2453 is a blatant attempt to maintain second class citizen status for tax paying gay and lesbian Kansans.”
Witt, however, commended Republicans who voted against the bill, saying, “These Republicans understand our concern that government employees should serve everyone, not just pick and choose who and who they won’t serve.”
As for how the bill will fair in the GOP-dominated Senate, Witt would not speculate.
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