Gay-rights advocates lashed out Wednesday at the Kansas House's leading Democrat, saying he showed only tepid opposition to a bill protecting people who, based on their religious beliefs, discriminate against gays and lesbians.
Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat who's also running for governor, voted against the measure, which the House passed 72-49 on Wednesday, sending it to the state Senate.
Kansas House bill 2453 would prohibit government sanctions or anti-discrimination lawsuits against individuals, groups and businesses over faith-based refusals to recognize marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships or to provide goods, services, accommodations or employment benefits to couples.
Supporters argued that the bill would protect the rights of Kansans' to adhere to their religious beliefs even if federal courts strike down the state constitution's ban on same-sex unions. They contend the measure is akin to protections for churches, religious groups and others in states where lawmakers have legalized gay marriage.
Davis issued a statement after a House debate Tuesday saying the bill "goes out of its way to ignore the critical challenges families are facing right now." The statement did not mention the bill's contents or deal with critics' main concern, that the measure would encourage widespread discrimination against gays and lesbians.
"Every day we spend on issues like this is one day less this Legislature and Governor has to tackle the real, growing crises at hand," Davis said in the statement.
Davis is the presumed Democratic challenger this year to conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who hasn't formally endorsed the bill but has said he believes religious freedoms need to be protected. Davis is trying to woo unaffiliated voters and disaffected GOP moderates by emphasizing economic issues and education funding.
Gay rights advocates have become an increasing visible constituency within the Kansas Democratic Party over the past decade, particularly as the GOP has moved further right on social issues. On Wednesday, Equality Kansas State Chairwoman Sandra Meade decried Davis' response to a "blatant attempt to maintain second-class citizen status" for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Kansans.
"What is most disappointing about the House vote to pass this bill isn't the vote of the conservatives who we know must appease their extremist base, but the lack of public action to oppose or amend the bill by those legislators who claim they sincerely oppose it," Meade said in a statement. "It's unfortunate that discrimination against LGBT Kansans is seen as a distraction for the Democratic leadership, rather than a call to action."
Davis declined to respond to the statement.
Proponents including State Representative Charles Macheers, a republican from Shawnee who introduced the bill insisted it protects against discrimination.
During a speech on the House floor Tuesday Macheers said "Discrimination is horrible. It's hurtful…it has no place in civilized society, and that's precisely why we're moving this bill. There have been times throughout history where people have been persecuted for their religious beliefs because they were unpopular. This bill provides a shield of protection for that."
Other supporters of the bill contend that scenarios for widespread discrimination are far-fetched. They say the bill is narrowly tailored to protect florists and bakers who don't want to supply flowers or cakes for gay weddings, or churches that want to refuse the use of their sanctuaries to gay couples. Such conflicts have arisen in other states, including Oregon and Colorado, though the supporters of the bill haven't cited any Kansas examples.
"While homosexual marriage is not inevitable here in Kansas, this legislation would protect the rights of individuals, businesses, religious institutions and churches with sincerely held religious beliefs should subsequent court cases strike down the Kansas Marriage Amendment," said Robert Noland, executive director of the Kansas Family Policy Council, which opposes gay marriage.
Many believe the bill goes so far as to allow police and fireman to refuse help to gay couples even during life-threatening situations.
"Unfortunately they can decide, because of their extreme religious convictions, they can decide not to handle the situation that's presented to them," said Rep. Louis Ruiz, a Democrat representing the 32nd District.
Ruiz from Wyandotte County voted against the bill.
"It's sad. Being Mexican American, growing up like I did, born in the 50s and brought up in the 60s and 70s through the riots and the Civil Rights movement and the women's movement, it's very sad and it takes us back," he said.
There's already an online petition to stop the bill from passing in the Senate and a Facebook page to stop the bill with more than 37,000 likes.
If the bill does pass, the state is already planning on it being challenged. They anticipate court fees costing as must as $250,000, which would come out of the state's general fund.
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