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The bill — H.B. 2453 — passed the GOP-led House in a 72 to 49 vote on Wednesday and now heads to the Republican-controlled state Senate. If it succeeds there, it could then be signed into law by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
Supporters say the legislation would protect business owners and state employees who don't agree with gay marriage from potential discrimination lawsuits.
"Discrimination is horrible. It's hurtful," GOP Rep. Charles Macheers said during a debate on the house floor. "It has no place in civilized society, and that's precisely why we're moving this bill.
The law, Macheers said, would put Kansas "on the right side" of history.
"There have been times throughout history where people have been persecuted for their religious beliefs because they were unpopular," he said. "This bill provides a shield of protection for that."
"Same-sex marriage advocates have increasingly treated people who believe in traditional marriage as the legal equivalent of bigots and even racists," Frank Schubert, political director for the National Organization for Marriage, told Time [last] week. "They brook no disagreement with their ideology and they tolerate no dissent. Therefore legislation like this in Kansas becomes necessary to assure that people are not forced to personally be part of something they cannot in good conscience support."
But critics say the proposed bill would, in effect, segregate same-sex couples and legalize anti-gay discrimination.
"Every single rural county in this state has same-sex couples," Thomas Witt, spokesman for Equality Kansas, told the Wichita Eagle. "Government officials in those counties are going to be able to turn them away from services that they deserve as taxpayers."
"I do not believe it is ever on the right side of history to be allowed to discriminate against people," Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Republican who voted against the bill, said after Wednesday's vote.
Other critics were more pointed in their criticism.
"Kansas' anti-gay segregation bill is an abomination," Mark Joseph Stern wrote on Slate:
Any government employee is given explicit permission to discriminate against gay couples — not just county clerks and DMV employees, but literally anyone who works for the state of Kansas. If a gay couple calls the police, an officer may refuse to help them if interacting with a gay couple violates his religious principles. State hospitals can turn away gay couples at the door and deny them treatment with impunity. Gay couples can be banned from public parks, public pools, anything that operates under the aegis of the Kansas state government. ... As long as an individual believes that his service is somehow linked to a gay union of any form, he can legally refuse his services. And since anyone who denies gays service is completely shielded from any charges, no one will ever have to prove that their particular form of discrimination fell within the four corners of the law.
"This could be a banner week for Bible thumpers in Kansas and gun lovers in Missouri," Yael T. Abouhalkah wrote in the Kansas City Star. "Kansas lawmakers are trying to appeal to the religious right with a bill that's aimed at making sure same-sex marriage stays in the closet. It's a great issue to demagogue on, even if it looks silly and homophobic."
As Time magazine noted, the bill "is part of a larger trend across the U.S. pitting gay rights advocates against conservatives who say same-sex marriage is contrary to their religious beliefs."
So-called religious exemption laws have been proposed in Idaho, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma and Oregon, where anti-gay groups are working on a ballot initiative that would allow florists, bakers and other businesses to refuse services for same-sex weddings on religious grounds.
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