Battle between religious and gay rights splits GOP states

By : Wire Report
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JEFFERSON CITY, MO. — Republican lawmakers upset about the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage have advanced measures in about a dozen states this year that could strengthen protections for those who refuse on religious grounds to provide services to same-sex couples.

The bills could benefit court clerks, photographers, florists, bakers, wedding-hall operators and others who say gay matrimony goes against their beliefs.

For a party already being torn apart by the presidential contest, the state legislative efforts have exposed deep rifts between the GOP’s social conservatives and its pro-business wing. Business leaders worry that such measures will allow discrimination and scare away companies and major events.

So far, only a few proposals have become law. Those include narrowly tailored protections shielding Florida clergy from having to perform same-sex weddings and college religious organizations in Kansas from losing aid.

A far more sweeping one was signed into law Tuesday by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, despite objections from some major corporations. It creates a religious shield from government penalties for an array of people and organizations, including marriage-license clerks, adoption agencies, counselors and more than a dozen categories of businesses that provide wedding-related services. It applies not only to those with religious beliefs about gay marriage, but also to those who believe that sex outside marriage is wrong and that sexual identity is determined at birth.

Other broadly written proposals have failed, stalled or are still working their way through legislatures. Some examples:

— Republican Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia last week vetoed a religious protection bill passed by the GOP-led House, siding with top business executives who threatened boycotts and dire economic consequences.

— A GOP-passed bill shielding clergy and religious groups from participating in gay marriages was vetoed last week by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, who cited opposition from corporate leaders.

— In Tennessee, a coalition that includes the American Counseling Association launched an online ad campaign against the Republican House speaker over a bill that would let counselors turn away patients based on religious beliefs. The ad warns: “Businesses won’t come to a state that discriminates.”

— In Missouri, scores of activists rallied at the Capitol to protest a proposed constitutional amendment that would prohibit penalties against those who decline on religious grounds to provide wedding-related services to same-sex couples. The state Chamber of Commerce and Industry also came out against it.

“This is a unique issue because two of the primary bases of the Republican Party are both the business interest and the social conservative. It’s rare, but occasionally those interests are not aligned,” said Missouri state Rep. Elijah Haahr, chairman of the committee considering the measure.

In several states, major businesses and sports organizations — including Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Walt Disney Co., the NFL and the NCAA — have joined lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists in raising concerns that such measures could legalize discrimination.

Some religious leaders have countered that it is the faithful who face discrimination for living according to their beliefs. They cite government fines and lawsuits against florists, bakers and photographers who declined to do work for same-sex weddings.

“Good and commonsense bills that simply underscore or protect freedoms that we’ve had since the founding of our country are being attacked by large corporations seeking to thwart the democratic process,” said Kellie Fiedorek, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based group that has backed religious-objection legislation and led court fights in various states.

More than 60 state legislative measures allowing for religious refusals at the expense of LGBT rights have been introduced, according to the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign.

“We’re seeing definitely a greater number this year,” including many with consequences that would be far-reaching, said Sara Warbelow, the campaign’s legal director.

The battle came to the national forefront last spring when Indiana and Arkansas passed religious protection measures, then revised them after a backlash from businesses. Social conservatives intensified their push after the Supreme Court ruled in June that gay marriage is legal everywhere in the U.S.

Supporters say the measures are necessary to protect people such as Robert and Cynthia Gifford, who were fined $13,000 for violating New York’s anti-discrimination law after they declined to host a lesbian wedding at their Liberty Ridge Farm north of Albany in 2013.

The Giffords stopped hosting weddings altogether. But after recently losing an appeal, Cynthia Gifford said they plan to resume their wedding business. They will allow gay couples to get married on their property without personally participating in the ceremonies.

“It would have been nice to be protected by the law,” she said. “This has been financially tragic for our family.”

Opponents of religious protection measures argue they could harm states financially by discouraging major businesses from hosting events or expanding operations in places seen as hostile toward gay employees or customers.

The economic effect of such measures is open to debate.

A survey by the tourism promotion group Visit Indy found that Indiana’s new law played a role in 12 conventions going elsewhere, costing Indianapolis as much as $60 million in economic benefits. But that’s just a fraction of the 1,100 conventions bid on by the city.

Indianapolis still reaped a record $4.5 billion in economic benefits from tourism in 2015. It also booked more future convention business than any year before, thanks to a surge from Indiana-based organizations that offset a decline from out-of-state businesses, said Visit Indy Vice President Chris Gahl.

While some Republican lawmakers this year have pointed to Indiana as a reason for caution, others have brushed aside threats of boycotts. In Georgia, the governor’s veto rankled many religious conservatives.

“This is why people are angry with the politicians of our nation,” said Tanya Ditty, Georgia director of Concerned Women for America, a Christian group. “They are not elected to represent Hollywood values, nor Wall Street values. They’re elected to represent the voters of Georgia, and that does not preclude people of faith.”

Lawmakers in numerous states have advanced measures this year that would strengthen religious protections for individuals, organizations or some businesses that decline to provide services to same-sex couple based on their religious beliefs.

While some are narrowly tailored to protect clergy, others are written more broadly, potentially applying to an array of businesses. Some bills already have been sent to governors while others are pending in the legislature. A few already have failed to pass before legislative sessions ended.

Here’s a look at some of the bills that have advanced in state legislatures over the past year:

KANSAS

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill that prevents colleges and universities from denying religious student associations the same funding or benefits available to other groups because of requirements that its members follow the association’s religious beliefs, standards or conduct. The law will take effect July 1 (Senate Bill 175).

ARKANSAS

The Republican-led Legislature passed a bill last year preventing government entities from substantially burdening the religious exercise of individuals, associations or corporations, unless by the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest (House Bill 1228). After businesses raised concerns, lawmakers pulled back the bill and passed a new one that eventually was signed by Gov. Asa Hutchison. The revised version more closely mirrors the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, without specifically applying it to businesses and associations (Senate Bill 975).

FLORIDA

Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a law stating that clergy, churches, religious schools and other religious organizations cannot be required to marry people or allow their facilities to be used for marriage celebrations that violate “a sincerely held religious belief.” The law will take effect July 1 (House Bill 43).

GEORGIA

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal announced last week that he will veto a bill barring government penalties against religious schools and organizations that decline to employ, provide services to or allow the use of their facilities by people because of a “sincerely held religious belief.” The measure also would have protected clergy who decline to preform same-sex marriages. And it would have enacted a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless by the least restrictive means for a compelling government interest (House Bill 757).

INDIANA

Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed a bill last year barring government entities from substantially burdening the religious exercise of individuals, organizations and businesses, unless by the least restrictive means to further a compelling government interest (Senate Bill 101). After businesses raised concerns, Pence signed an amended version stating that the law cannot be used to deny services, public accommodations, employment or housing based on race, religion, age, sexual orientation or gender identity (Senate Bill 50).

KENTUCKY

The Republican-led Senate passed a measure that would expand the state Religious Freedom Restoration Act by barring penalties against those who decline to provide “customized, artistic, expressive, creative, ministerial or spiritual goods or services” to people that would infringe on their “right of conscience” or religious freedoms. The measure also applies to people who provide judgments, attestations and commissions. The bill is pending in the Democratic-led House, where House Speaker Greg Stumbo has questioned its constitutionality (Senate Bill 180).

MISSISSIPPI

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed a law Tuesday asserting a “broad protection of free exercise of religious beliefs.” The measure will prohibit government from taking “any discriminatory action” against religious organizations that decline to host marriages, employ people or facilitate adoption or foster care based on a religious belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman, sex outside marriage is wrong or that sexual identity is determined by a person’s anatomy at birth.

Similar protections will cover counselors and at least 13 other categories of wedding-related services, including photographers, disc-jockeys, florists, cake-makers, jewelers and limousine drivers. The bill will allow judges and marriage-license clerks to recuse themselves from same-sex marriages. It also will prohibit government penalties against those who set sex-specific standards for dress codes and the use of restrooms. The law will take effect July 1 (House Bill 1523).

MISSOURI

After ending a 37-hour Democratic filibuster, the Republican-led Senate passed a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would bar government penalties against individuals and business such as florists or photographers who cite “a sincere religious belief” while declining to provide “services of expressional or artistic creation” for same-sex weddings and receptions.

The protections also would apply to clergy and religious organizations that decline to make their facilities available for same-sex weddings. If also passed by the Republican-led House, the proposal would go before voters in either the August primary or November general election (Senate Joint Resolution 39).

NEBRASKA

A legislative committee advanced a bill allowing adoption and foster care agencies to decline to facilitate child placements based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.” But the bill’s sponsor decided last week not to press forward with the bill, which lacked enough support to overcome a potential filibuster (Legislative Bill 975).

OKLAHOMA

Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill last May stating that clergy and other religious officials cannot be required to perform marriages or provide marriage counseling, courses or workshops that violate their conscience or religious beliefs (House Bill 1007).

SOUTH DAKOTA

The Republican-led House passed legislation barring government from taking “discriminatory action” against people, organizations or businesses based on their “sincerely held religious belief” that marriage should be between one man and one women, sex outside marriage is wrong or that sexual identity is determined by a person’s biological sex at birth. The bill was tabled in a Senate committee and did not pass before the legislative session ended (House Bill 1107).

TENNESSEE

The Republican-led Senate has passed legislation exempting counselors and therapists from providing services to clients related to behaviors that conflict with “a sincerely held religious belief,” as long as they refer the clients to someone else. The bill is pending in the Republican-led House (Senate Bill 1556).

TEXAS

Just two weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must allow gay marriage, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law last June stating that clergy and religious organizations cannot be required to marry people or allow their facilities to be used for wedding celebrations that violate a “sincerely held religious belief” (Senate Bill 2065).

VIRGINIA

Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed a Republican-passed bill stating that clergy and religious organizations cannot be penalized for declining to participate in same-sex marriages (Senate Bill 41). The House also passed a bill that would bar the government from taking any “discriminatory action” against people, organizations or businesses based on their “sincerely held religious belief” that marriage should be between one man and one women, sex outside marriage is wrong or that sexual identity is determined by a person’s biological sex at birth. That bill was altered by the Senate and ultimately failed to pass before the legislative session ended (House Bill 773).

WEST VIRGINIA

The Republican-led House passed a bill modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, stating that government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless by the least restrictive means for a compelling government interest. The bill was amended in the Republican-led Senate to state that it would not apply to any anti-discrimination ordinances or child vaccination requirements. Senators then defeated the revised bill (House Bill 4012).

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