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Kansas House committee advances bill protecting religious rights

By Mark A. Kellner

Deseret News National Edition

Published: Friday, Feb. 7 2014 6:40 p.m. MST

Kansas state Rep. Allan Rothlisberg, left, of Grandview Plaza, watches as Rep. Shanti Gandhi, right, of Topeka, asks a question during a committee debate on "religious freedom" legislation dealing with gay marriage, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. The two Republicans are split over the bill, which Rothlisberg supports and Gandhi opposes

John Hanna, Associated Press

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The Kansas House's Federal and State Affairs Committee advanced a bill Thursday that would allow the refusal of services or benefits to same-sex couples by those with religious objections, including public employees.

"The bill was drafted in reaction to federal court rulings overturning same-sex marriage bans in other states, said Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, the committee’s chairman," the Wichita Eagle reported. "In 2005, Kansas voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage."

The measure could go to the full Kansas House of Representatives for a vote next week. The Wichita paper noted that former U.S. senator and now Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said "that he has yet to read the bill, but called himself a 'strong proponent and supporter for religious liberty.’ ”

An Associated Press story said the Kansas "proposal for shielding florists, bakers and others from being forced to help with same-sex weddings would let government workers discriminate against gay couples by citing personal religious beliefs."

“ ‘This isn’t about wedding cakes. This isn’t about flowers,' Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the state’s leading gay-rights group, said after the committee’s vote. 'This is about giving government employees the right to not do their jobs,’ ” AP reported.

The Kansas bill takes on an impasse between religious liberty and gay rights advocates over extending protections beyond clergy and houses of worship that prohibit same-sex marriage.

The Thursday vote followed a committee hearing two days earlier in which both sides expressed concerns, according to an AP account in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The American Religious Freedom Project's Tim Schultz "said a court ruling striking down the Kansas Constitution's ban on gay marriage would be a serious threat to religious liberties, absent the protections offered by the bill," according to the report.

On the other hand, Lori Wagner, "a retired Lawrence (Kansas) teacher who traveled to Iowa in 2012 to marry her female partner, said religious freedoms already are well-protected."

Wagner was quoted saying: "Their right to believe their religion does not allow them to force their religious beliefs on others or to deny my existence or my life."

The Kansas legislative action contrasts with what's taken place in Utah, where Republican leadership decided to not hear any bills related to nondiscrimination or same-sex marriage, pending an appeal of a federal judge's ruling that declared the state's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional.

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