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Missouri senator introduces 'religious freedom' bill

By Jason Hancock, The Kansas City Star
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Feb. 25--A Republican state lawmaker filed legislation Monday that would allow Missouri business owners to cite religious beliefs as a legal justification for refusing to provide service.

Although it doesn't mention sexual orientation, the bill could provide legal cover for denial of services to same-sex couples.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Wayne Wallingford of Cape Girardeau, states that a governmental authority shall not substantially burden a person's free exercise of religion unless the government demonstrates that it has a compelling interest.

To supporters of the idea -- similar to legislation filed in several other states -- the goal is to make it clear that private individuals can use religious beliefs as a defense in litigation.

"We're trying to protect Missourians from attacks on their religious freedom," Wallingford said.

Opponents contend bills like Wallingford's would allow businesses to discriminate against anyone they do not like, most notably gays and lesbians.

"It's a legislative attempt to legalize discrimination toward (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) individuals," said A.J. Bockelman, executive director of the LGBT rights organization PROMO.

Wallingford said he based the bill loosely on legislation that has been debated in other states, such as Kansas and Arizona. He pointed to instances that have cropped up in debate in those other states.

In Washington state, for example, a florist would not provide flowers for a same-sex wedding. And in Colorado, a baker refused to make a cake for a party celebrating the wedding of two men.

In both cases, the business owners cited religious beliefs in declining to provide services and were eventually sued.

"This is trying to provide a defense in those types of instances," Wallingford said.

He said the bill is also designed to protect businesses such as Hobby Lobby, which is engaged in a protracted legal fight to over the company's religious objection to providing insurance coverage for certain types of contraception as mandated by the federal Affordable Care Act.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the Hobby Lobby lawsuit this year.

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In the states where similar bills have been debated, controversy erupted.

In Kansas, the state House approved a bill to prohibit government fines and anti-discrimination lawsuits when people, groups or businesses cite their religious beliefs in refusing to provide goods, services, accommodations or employment benefits to gay and lesbian couples.

But that legislation has stalled in the Kansas Senate.

Gay-rights supporters planned to rally at the Kansas Statehouse in opposition to the bill Tuesday.

Wallingford was one of nine senate Republicans who joined with Democrats last year to pass a bill adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's Human Rights Act. State law currently prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender and age, among other categories, but not sexual orientation.

That bill died in the closing moments of the 2013 session when the House didn't bring it up for a vote.

Bockelman said Wallingford's bill sets up a situation where one Missouri law says certain people are protected from discrimination while another would essentially allow that discrimination if it were based on religious convictions.

"The Human Rights Act says there are protected classes, such as race and gender, with a history of facing discrimination," Bockelman said. "But this bill says a person's religious beliefs are more protected."

Wallingford said he still supports outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace. He points out that his bill specifically states it would not apply to discrimination against those included in the Missouri Human Rights Act.

"There should not be discrimination in the workplace," Wallingford said. "But businesses should be free to practice their religious beliefs."

Earlier this month, the House approved legislation sponsored by Speaker Tim Jones that would allow health care workers could refuse to take part in certain medical procedures that violate their ethical or religious beliefs.

To reach Jason Hancock, call 573-634-3565 or send email to jhancock@kcstar.com.

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(c)2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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