Monday, July 18, 2016

Federal 'religious freedom' bill likely to become a campaign issue in Kansas

Story by Peter Hancock

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Topeka — Three of the four members of the U.S. House from Kansas have signed on as cosponsors of a proposed "First Amendment Defense Act," which critics say would legalize discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender individuals.

But a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins of Topeka, whose 2nd Congressional District includes Lawrence and who serves on one of the committees considering the bill, said she is still undecided about the bill, although he indicated that Jenkins sympathizes with the concerns of its supporters.

"The Congresswoman has always believed inalienable rights are inherent to all people, and as Americans we cannot tolerate the persecution of any group because of their religious beliefs," said Jenkins' press secretary Michael Byerly.

Jenkins serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, one of two committees assigned to consider the bill. That committee has not yet scheduled hearings on the bill.

But the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the other panel assigned to the bill, held hearings Tuesday, July 12, where the committee chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said he believes the bill is necessary to protect the rights of religious institutions in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

"This was an issue acknowledged by the solicitor general during oral arguments before the Supreme Court," Chaffetz said. "When asked by Justice (Samuel) Alito whether a religious institution could lose its tax-exempt status if it opposed same-sex marriage, the solicitor general responded, and I quote: "I don't think I can answer that question wthout knowing more specifics, but it's certainly going to be an issue.'"

However, the bill up for debate, H.R. 2802, does not mention the actions or policies of institutions. Rather, it refers to the actions or beliefs of individuals who may, or may not, be connected to such institutions.

It would prohibit the federal government from taking any discriminatory action against any person who, "acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage."

That would include such actions as revoking the tax-exempt status of nonprofit institutions such as religious schools or colleges run by such individuals; disallowing federal tax deductions for contributions made to such organizations; or denying anyone a federal contract, grant, loan, license or other benefit simply because that person, or an institution run by that person, discriminates against gays.

Jim Obergfell, the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case, also testified at the congressional hearing, and he rejected the argument that the bill is needed to protect religious freedoms.

"Religious liberty is a core American value," he said. "Everyone in this country is free to believe, or not, and to live out their faith as they see fit, provided that they do not do so in a way that harms other people. As I see it, this legislation turns this value on its head by permitting discrimination and harm under the guise of religious liberty."

The bill is already becoming an issue in some Kansas congressional races, including the 2nd District where Jenkins will face Democrat Britani Potter, an Ottawa school board member in the Nov. 8 general election.

"I believe that the first amendment already protects our right to religious freedoms, and our rights only extend to the point that they don’t impede on anybody else’s rights," Potter said. "I would oppose that bill."

The congressional bill is similar in spirit to legislation already passed in a handful of states, including North Carolina and Georgia, where they have sparked protests and even some boycotts.

It is also similar to one that ignited a firestorm of controversy in the Kansas Legislature in 2014.

That bill, which would have gone even further by extending protections to individuals in private-sector employment who refused to recognize same-sex marriages, was introduced at the request of Rep. Charles Macheers, R-Shawnee, and it initially passed the Kansas House, 72-49.

But it was soon killed in the Kansas Senate amid an avalanche of protests, including some from major businesses in Kansas who argued that it would have unduly interfered with their rights to establish their own internal personnel policies.

Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, which advocates for LGBT rights at the state level, said the bill now moving through Congress is no different than the one that failed in Kansas two years ago.

"This (federal) legislation is absolutely unnecessary and is nothing more than a mean-spirited attack on legally wed couples in this nation," said Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, which advocates for LGBT rights.

A more limited Kansas bill, Senate Bill 175, did pass this year, prohibiting colleges and universities in Kansas from denying access to facilities or funding to student religious organizations solely because they have discriminatory membership policies.

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