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State of Denial

News & Features | March 3, 2014

“Discrimination is horrible,” said State Representative Charles Macheers (R) in his defense of Kansas House Bill 2453. “It’s hurtful…. It has no place in civilized society.”

The bill, entitled “Protecting religious freedom regarding marriage,” would have allowed denial of service to gay couples “if it would be contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender.”

House Bill 2453 is part of a group of bills that seek to protect religious freedom. At the same time, provisions of these bills allow discrimination against LGBT Americans. Conservative interest groups are lobbying for this wave of legislation in multiple states.

In Kansas, they wrote the bill.

On Feb. 12, the bill, which was sponsored by the Committee on Federal and State Affairs, passed with a final vote of 72 to 49.

The CFSA, which has a Republican majority, presented the bill as a protection of the religious freedoms of those who are opposed to same-sex marriage on a religious basis.

The bill’s passage in the House outraged many groups. Some of the most vocal opposition has come from small businesses in Kansas. Emily Mitchell, the director of communications at the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, directed the Observer to a press release, which read in part, “The impact [of HB 2453] on Kansas businesses, particularly those with very few employees, is very troubling.” It cited concerns about “potentially costly legal questions over how businesses would be expected to comply with areas of business speech, discrimination, and privacy concerns.”

The main concern for the Chamber of Commerce is that regardless of the policies a business might have, one of their employees can deny a customer service based on that employee’s “sincerely held religious beliefs.” If the business were to then fire the employee for their discriminatory action against the customers, the employee could sue the business under HB 2453 for their discriminatory action against the employee.

Civil rights and gay rights activist groups are also concerned. Thomas Witt, the executive director of the Kansas Equality Coalition, told the Observer, “When we had our attorneys look at this [bill], there are certain parts of this that they think might not withstand constitutional scrutiny.”

House Bill 2453 was written by a Washington D.C. lobbying group called the American Religious Freedom Program, which describes itself as “devoted to protecting and strengthening Americans’ God-given and constitutional religious freedoms.”

Tim Schultz, the State Legislative Policy Director for the American Religious Freedom Program, sent written testimony to the Kansas House Judiciary Committee in defense of the bill. He called it “a thoughtful and balanced civil rights law,” saying that the legislation would “ensure that Kansans of all faiths continue to enjoy robust rights to the free exercise of religion for many generations to come.” Nowhere in his testimony did Schultz mention the rights of members of the LGBT community in Kansas.

The American Religious Freedom Program (ARFP) is part of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), a conservative Washington think-tank. The EPPC created the ARFP in 2012, and as of June 2013, the group has founded “bipartisan religious freedom caucuses” in 18 states. According to the Catholic News Agency, these caucuses “focus on threats to religious liberty.” Tufts University Chaplain Greg McGonigle told the Observer in an email, “Whenever religious traditions are used to promote discrimination…my belief is that the religion is being co-opted to justify an underlying prejudice that is not religious at all.”

House Bill 2453 is by no means the only bill of its kind being debated in state legislatures recently. Witt said, “We’re seeing similar legislation pop up in other states. It is a coordinated national effort by the extreme right.

Indeed, on Feb. 19, the Arizona state Senate passed Senate Bill 1062, which allows individuals and businesses to deny their service to someone if providing that service would violate their “sincerely held religious beliefs” in any way.

Kansas House Bill 2453 did not pass in the state senate. Even before it was voted on, Republican leadership in the Kansas Senate was clear about its position on the bill. In a statement on Feb 13, Senate President Susan Wagle (R) explained that while the Republican majority in the state Senate supports religious freedom, they “also don’t condone discrimination.

However, the bill in Arizona did pass in both houses. Similar legislation has been, or will be, introduced in Idaho, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah.

And the commonalities between these bills reach far beyond their content. According to Mother Jones, bill writers in Tennessee and South Dakota also consulted with the ARFP, the same organization that wrote the Kansas bill.

Support for versions of the Kansas bill in multiple other states has also come from an organization called Citizen Link, the public policy arm of Focus on the Family, a self-described “global Christian ministry dedicated to helping families thrive.” Citizen Link has established “Family Policy Centers” in 38 states since 1988.

The Idaho branch of Citizen Link is called Cornerstone Family Council. In a statement to Al Jazeera America, Cornerstone’s executive director Julie Lynd said her organization has been “involved in working on the language” of this kind of legislation in Idaho.

In hearings regarding Arizona Senate Bill 1062, Josh Kredit, of the Center for Arizona Policy, testified in support of the bill. The Center for Arizona Policy is also an offshoot of Citizen Link.

On Feb 24, three Arizona senators asked Arizona Governor Jan Brewer to veto the very bill they had voted to pass. The senators—Driggs, Pierce, and Worsley—were all part of the Republican majority that passed Senate Bill 1062 less than a week earlier. In a letter, the senators said they had voted for the bill with a “sincere intent” to protect religious freedom, but that “the bill has instead been mischaracterized by its opponents as a sword for religious intolerance.”

The vote in the Senate was 17-13. Had the three senators voted against the bill, it would not have passed.