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Kansas lawmakers retreat from religious liberty bill

The Kansas state Senate GOP leadership announced that it was killing a religious liberty measure, harpooned for opening the door to anti-gay discrimination.
Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and president of the Kansas Senate, talks to a reporter in her office at the Kansas Statehouse, Feb. 14, 2014.
Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and president of the Kansas Senate, talks to a reporter in her office at the Kansas Statehouse, Feb. 14, 2014.

In a surprising move, the Kansas state Senate Republican leadership announced on Friday that it was killing -- at least, in its current form -- a controversial religious liberty measure, harpooned for opening the door to broad anti-gay discrimination.

House Bill 2453, as drafted and passed by the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives this week, would give any individual, business, group, or government official the right to deny same-sex couples a host of basic goods, services, benefits, or employment -- on the grounds of a conflicting “sincerely held religious belief.” Lawmakers in the state House approved the measure on Wednesday by a vote of 72-49.

The bill was widely expected to pass the state Senate, too, as Republicans outnumber Democrats 32-8 in that chamber. But Republican state Sen. Susan Wagle, the Senate’s president, poured cold water on its prospects Thursday night when she released a statement saying that a majority of her caucus opposed the bill’s potential green light to discriminate. On Friday, she reaffirmed that position.

“I believe that when you hire police officers or a fireman that they have no choice in who they serve,” Wagle said at a news conference Friday, according to the Wichita Eagle. “They serve anyone who’s vulnerable, any age, any race, any sexual orientation.”

“Public service needs to remain public service for the entire public,” she added.

Read more:  Religious liberty bill opens door for LGBT discrimination

One of the strongest criticisms of the bill was that it gave state employees license to ignore legally valid same-sex marriages. Opponents feared officials could cite the law’s protections in refusing to intervene in a domestic violence dispute between a gay couple, for example, or in denying a gay couple a marriage license, should a judge overturn the state’s 2005 voter-approved ban on gay marriage.

Supporters insisted the purpose of the measure was to ensure the free exercise of religion, and pointed to the bill’s stipulation that an employer find another employee to perform a service if one refused on religious grounds.

Wagle said that provision would increase the cost of doing business and place a burden on employers.

“I believe the intent of the House was to protect religious liberties. We respect that,” she said, according to the Associated Press. “But the business implications are going to harm the practice of employment in Kansas.”

As the bill began to pick up steam, it fueled a chorus of growing opposition. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the newly formed Kansas Employers for Liberty Coalition released statements saying that the bill posed legal problems for the business community, and that it would strain employer-employee relationships. And a Facebook page titled “Stop Kansas House Bill 2453” has netted more than 50,000 “likes” as of Friday evening.

“Political pages here, if they get 1,000 ‘likes,’ they’re pretty successful,” Thomas Witt, executive director of the Kansas Equality Coalition, told msnbc. “This has exploded in this state. And it blew up in their faces.”

At an afternoon press conference Friday, state House Speaker Ray Merrick said that if the vote were held again, it probably wouldn’t pass. He promised to work with the Senate until they reached a consensus on what to do with the bill.