Conservative argue that “religious liberty” extends to allowing business owners to discriminate against married same-sex couples, because recognizing such unions would violate their religious beliefs. New efforts to explicitly codify that discrimination into law, however, have backfired in several states over the past week. Not only have businesses expressed concerns about how they would be implemented, but even Republican leadership in these conservative states have objected to the notion that discrimination needs to be enshrined into law.
Lawmakers in Kansas, for example, proposed a bill that not only allowed discrimination when it came to same-sex weddings, but was also vague enough to possibly allow individuals to refuse service to anyone who is LGBT. The Kansas House passed it last week, but after national outcry, Senate lawmakers torpedoed the bill, and House Speaker Ray Merrick (R) now says it probably wouldn’t even pass in the House if brought to a vote again. Among those who objected was Kansas Chamber of Commerce President Mike O’Neal, a former speaker of the House, who heard concerns from various businesses that there would be no way to vet employees to make sure they would serve all customers. Though the Senate is Republican-controlled, it won’t be hearing this bill in its current form.
South Dakota was similarly considering a bill that would have allowed for discrimination when it came to any kind of wedding, not just same-sex couples. That bill (SB 67) was withdrawn because its sponsor decided it was redundant, but another bill (SB 128) blatantly allowing businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation was still considered. On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary committee killed the bill with a 5-2 vote, with Sen. Mark Kirkeby (R) condemning it as “a mean, nasty, hateful, vindictive bill.”
Tennessee’s “license to discriminate” bill also met its demise this week. The so-called “Religious Freedom Act” (SB 2566) would have allowed discrimination when providing any service relating to a marriage not recognized by the state. Its sponsor, Sen. Mike Bell (R), withdrew the bill on Tuesday, saying that it was not necessary. Unfortunately, that’s true: Tennessee provides no nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community and same-sex couples cannot marry there. Still, the bill may return if a pending lawsuit successfully overturns Tennessee’s ban on same-sex marriage.
This week, the Maine Senate voted 19-16 to reject LD 1428, a bill that would have protected any individual “acting or refusing to act in a manner substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious belief.” The House is nevertheless going to consider the bill on Thursday. (Update: The Maine House rejected the bill 89-52.)
In Idaho, state Rep. Lynn Luker (R) proposed a bill (HB 427) that would guard any individual’s free exercise of religion from resulting in any government sanctions, essentially protecting religious discrimination like the other bills. It passed with an 11-5 vote in the House State Affairs Committee, but now Luker is taking a “thoughtful pause” to address concerns he’s heard that the bill’s intent was to be “a sword for discrimination.”
The only other bill of this kind — and the only one that hasn’t faltered — is Arizona’s SB 1062, which has advanced in both House and Senate committees. Rep. Steve Yarbrough’s (R) bill is so sweeping that it could allow for religious justification of any kind of discrimination, not just refusing services to LGBT people. Democrats have countered with a bill protecting LGBT people from employment discrimination.
Backlash against these bills is revealing that “religious liberty” is merely a guise for continuing to treat LGBT people like second-class citizens. If even the Republican leadership in these states is put off by that reality, then “religious liberty” may be doomed as a conservative tactic against LGBT equality.