Proposed legislation that would allow discrimination against LGBT people based on religious beliefs failed or faced major setbacks in four separate states Tuesday, dealing a significant blow to what some have seen as a new front for LGBT rights opponents.
"[Tuesday was] a very important rebuffing of the latest anti-gay and anti-choice tactics, but I wouldn't say that we're out of the woods yet," said Evan Wolfson, president and founder of Freedom to Marry. "Our opponents have lost the argument about gay people, they've lost the argument about marriage and all they have left is distractions, diversions, and desperate attempts to carve out the license to discriminate as they have tried in every other civil rights chapter in our nation's history."
Lawmakers in Idaho, Kansas, South Dakota, and Tennessee either voted down, blocked, or backtracked on legislation in the states that would have allowed individuals, religious organizations, businesses, and, in the case of Kansas, government employees to discriminate against LGBT people in the form of denying services and other recognition based on religious beliefs.
LGBT and civil rights advocates say that while the battle over these issues is far from over, Tuesday's developments are encouraging and could send signals to other states contemplating similar measures.
"This is an incredible development and very encouraging," said Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. "People across the country are seeing discrimination is just wrong, plain and simple, no matter how they try to justify it with these bills."
The bills come in the wake of the growing marriage equality movement in the United States, where marriage is legal for same-sex couples in 17 states and the District of Columbia, and where federal courts have struck down marriage bans in Oklahoma, Utah, and Virginia in recent months.
Although Idaho, Kansas, South Dakota, and Tennessee do not allow marriage for same-sex couples, lawmakers backing the bills say the proposals are preemptive measures to protect businesses with religious beliefs should same-sex couples be allowed to marry there someday, citing cases where businesses were sued for denying services to same-sex couples.
"Just in the last week and a half, we've seen liberal, activist judges overrule the will of the people in our neighboring states, Kentucky and Virginia, by overturning their constitutional amendments defining marriage as between a man and a woman," said Sen. Mike Bell, sponsor of the Tennessee bill. "And it's shame, it's a shame that we're here discussing the protections of business owners' rights in this regards. Because of liberal court judges across the country, we must stand prepared."
Moments later, Bell pulled the bill from the state's Senate Judiciary Committee after concluding with legal experts that the state's law already "protects our business owners from the type of lawsuit harassment we've seen in other states."
But opponents of these bills say they are "trojan horses" and would ultimately undermine nondiscrimination and human rights laws at municipal and state levels. They are "a dangerous solution to a nonproblem," Wolfson said.
The proposal in Kansas, House Bill 2453, is particularly egregious, opponents of the bill say, because it would have allowed government employees to turn away people if serving them violated their religious beliefs. Specifically, the bill aims to bar anti-discrimination lawsuits and government sanctions against private and public employees, groups, and businesses for refusing services, goods, accommodations, or employment benefits to same-sex couples.
The bill "basically incites discrimination in every aspect of someone's life," Rho said. "[Proponents] try to claim it was limited to wedding-related services, but I would direct them to the bill's language and ask them how that is because the language is so broad."
Kansas Sen. Jeff King said Tuesday the legislation won't pass in the Senate this session after sailing through the House in a 72-49 vote last week. However, "nothing ever stays dead in this capitol," Thomas Witt, executive director at Kansas Equality, told BuzzFeed.
"That particular [bill] number is dead, but again, that doesn't mean that the subject matter stays dead," he said. "It can come right back in a different form and that happens here in regularity. One of my sources called me and said that there are members of the House leadership team looking to see if they have enough votes to send something to the Senate again."
But, he said, "Senate leadership doesn't want anything to do with this, and I'm hoping their position is persuasive to the rest of the legislature" — though he added that what happens next on the issue "is anyone's guess."
In South Dakota, a Senate committee voted 5-2 on Tuesday to end consideration of a similar bill there for this session. The committee voted to defer the bill, Senate Bill 128, to the 41st day of the legislature's 40-day session, effectively killing the bill. It would have allowed people and businesses to turn away lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, according to the bill's text, which reads, "No person or entity may bring suit against another person for expressing their religious beliefs on the subject of sexual orientation."
Senators listened to extensive and, at times, heated testimony before Tuesday's vote. Republican Sen. Jeff Monroe defended the bill, saying its purpose is "for protecting against those who purposely choose an entity with whom they are unfamiliar, have no intention of actually ever doing business with, and bringing suit against them based on accusations protected by the Constitution."
Sen. Mark Kirkeby, another Republican, rejected that argument, saying, "I don't think this is about protection. Senate Bill 128 — it's a mean, nasty, hateful, vindictive bill. It just is. I cannot sugarcoat that."
In Idaho, a bill that would have expanded religious protections faced a major setback when its sponsor, Rep. Lynn Luke, announced he would pull the bill from consideration before the full House and return it to committee after public outcry over concerns it would lead to discrimination.
"The intent of the bill was to provide a shield to protect the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment in light of the variety of increasing government mandates," Luker said in a statement to The Spokesman-Review on Tuesday. "However, many misinterpreted the intent to be a sword for discrimination. I respect the concerns that I heard and therefore want to find the right language to balance those concerns."
The House voted unanimously Wednesday to support Luker's move to put the bill back in committee. The measure will likely not come up again this session, Luker said, according to the paper.
And while advocates at the ACLU and Freedom to Marry welcome the action this week, they remained cautious — noting, for example, that a similar proposal is still pending in Arizona.
"Obviously, the legislative sessions are not over yet," Rho said. "We're not going to say victory just yet — I think it would be premature. We are very optimistic because the public's response opposing these bills. We are keeping very vigilant eyes on how they will slice and dice this moving forward to chip away at LGBT peoples' rights."