Kan. Senate leader: Discrimination bill needs work
TOPEKA (AP) — The Kansas Senate will not pass a bill in its current form that would prevent lawsuits against someone who refuses, for religious reasons, to provide services to gays and lesbians, the chamber's president said Friday.
Senate President Susan Wagle said the bill, which was approved Wednesday in the Kansas House, goes beyond protecting religious freedom. She raised concerns about how the measure could impact businesses that would refuse services to gay couples.
"I believe the intent of the House was to protect religious liberties. We respect that, but the business implications are going to harm the practice of employment in Kansas," said Wagle, a Wichita Republican.
The measure would prohibit government sanctions or lawsuits over faith-based refusals to recognize same-sex unions or to provide goods, services, accommodations or employment benefits to couples.
The House's passage of the measure prompted strong reactions across the country and from several businesses organizations and employers in Kansas, including AT&T, who issued statements urging legislators to stop the measure or rework it. The businesses said the provisions would hurt them and in some cases place them at odds with their own nondiscrimination policies.
What Wagle said she wants to see emerging from the Senate is a measure that removes the language extending protections to individual state and local government employees, allowing them because of religious beliefs to refuse to provide services, such as fire and police protection, in certain circumstances to gays and lesbians.
"Public service needs to remain public service for the entire public," she said.
House Speaker Ray Merrick said he has spoken with Wagle about working on new language, and noted the intent of the measure was never to discriminate but to protect religious liberties.
"The system is working," said Merrick, a Stilwell Republican. "They're going to make the changes they want."
Merrick also acknowledged it'd be unlikely the bill could pass the House in its present form if the vote were held again.
Senate leaders said it could be several weeks before a new version of the bill was ready, citing legislative schedules and a desire to take time to iron out all concerns.
Wagle said most Republican senators support traditional marriage and protecting religious freedom.
She also said that there's a concern the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals will overturn the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Recently, federal judges in Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Utah have ruled those states' bans unconstitutional.
The executive director of the state's leading gay rights group welcomed Wagle's words about the bill's language.
Thomas Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said the group sent proposed changes to a House committee before the chamber's vote that could have addressed some of the current concerns.
"If the Senate chooses to move forward with hearings, we look forward to working with them to draft language that will protect the religious liberties of all Kansans, while at the same time ensuring the dignity of gay and lesbian couples across the state," Witt said.
The state nondiscrimination law prohibits bias in employment and housing based on race, gender, ethnic origin and religion, but it doesn't cover sexual orientation or gender identity. Proposals from Witt's group to change that have failed to come to a vote in the Legislature.
Most Senate Democrats oppose the House bill and think the issue should be left alone this session.
"I think she made the right decision," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. "I don't think there is any sense in trying to beat a dead horse on this bill that basically legalizes discrimination."