Oklahoma considers extreme pro-discrimination ‘religious liberty’ bill

The conservative state fell behind on anti-LGBT legislation in 2016 and is trying to catch up.

Sen. Joseph Silk (R). CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
Sen. Joseph Silk (R). CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

In 2016, Oklahoma set a record for the most anti-LGBT bills introduced in one session, worsting Texas from the year before. Fortunately, legislative deadlines kept them from advancing, but now one lawmaker is back with what appears to be one of the most extreme “religious liberty” proposals any state has considered.

Behind the measure is Sen. Joseph Silk (R), who has an extensive record of particularly anti-LGBT legislation and statements. He calls his new bill, SB 197, the “Oklahoma Right of Conscience Act,” but it explicitly enables discrimination against LGBT people — and possibly just about anyone else!

SB 197 ensures that no one ever has to provide any services used in or to promote “a marriage ceremony or celebration of a specific lifestyle or behavior.” Additionally, such denials will be immune to any civil claim or governmental penalty. In fact, if someone tries to sue or the government takes an adverse action against the person who discriminates, that person will actually have a claim to “recover all reasonable attorney fees, costs, and damages” incurred as a result of the “violation.”

The proposal seems to borrow from two other prominent pieces of legislation, Mississippi’s currently-unenforceable HB 1526 — which specifically enables discrimination against LGBT people — and the proposed First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), which protects people who might discriminate against same-sex couples from any governmental penalty. Congressional Republicans are very optimistic about passing that bill given President-elect Donald Trump’s assurances that he would sign it.


Though the use of “marriage ceremony or celebration” seems to suggest that, like the other bills, SB 197 is designed to target same-sex couples for discrimination, the language is so broad that it could allow quite a bit more.

There is virtually no limit to what “specific lifestyle or behavior” an Oklahoma wedding vendor could imagine to justify refusing service to a person. As written, the law would make it legal for them to discriminate against vegetarians, people with tattoos, people who tweet in ALL CAPS, people who are left-handed, people who enjoy shopping at Target, or people who enjoy the musical Oklahoma! a bit too much, as examples.

Silk has introduced similar legislation in the past. In 2015, he explicitly told the New York Times that he has “homosexual friends,” but “they don’t have a right to be served in every single store.” He further explained to conservative radio host Bryan Fischer that “LGBT activists do not want people to have freedom,” and that’s why they advocate against people being able “to exercise their religious convictions.”

Last year, Silk offered up a bill targeting transgender people for discrimination in bathrooms, propping up the unfounded fear that it would somehow protect women and children. “So, if I send my 8-year-old daughter into the restroom at Pizza Hut, I really don’t know who’s in there,” he said at the time.

Silk’s bill is only one of many “religious liberty” bills state legislatures will likely introduce this year, but its breadth makes it one of the most extreme ever.