Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Religious Organizations Would Be Exempted from Missouri Human Rights Act Under New Bill

Posted By on Tue, Feb 16, 2016 at 6:45 AM

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The "religious freedom" bill scheduled to be heard in a committee of the Missouri Senate today technically has nothing to do with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who went to jail rather than issue same-sex marriage licenses. Technically, Senate Bill 916 doesn't even have anything to do with gays or lesbians.

But "technically" means nothing in an election year. The bill is being pushed by state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia), who hopes to be the Republican candidate for Attorney General — and so what the bill says, technically, is perhaps less important than what it would mean to primary voters. And that, critics in Jefferson City say, is all about the gays.

Notes Sarah Rossi, director of policy and advocacy for the ACLU of Missouri, "It's coming out of this fervor of what people see as an attack on religious liberty, to the detriment of minorities, members of religious minority groups, and other groups protected by Missouri's Human Rights Act." 

That's because the bill would greatly expand the number of businesses given a special religious exemption from Missouri's Human Rights Act. That law bars discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations on the basis of sex, race or religion — but it carves out a special exemption for religious organizations. Catholics, for example, may discriminate and only hire men as priests. And if a religion (like, say, the Mormons in the 1960s) believes that black people can't be pastors, the law gives them an exemption, too. If it's part of their sincerely held beliefs, they are free to discriminate.

The bill would expand who gets the exemption — from houses of worship and religious organizations, which are currently covered, to also include corporations and associations owned and operated by religious groups. Previously, the Catholic church got a pass; under these proposed changes, Catholic hospitals, for example, would get them too.

"It would greatly expand the definition of what's a religious organization in Missouri," Rossi says.

And the bill's origins are apparently in the controversy surrounding same-sex marriage. Several press releases in the wake of Kim Davis' ordeal suggested that conservatives like Schaefer would be introducing bills to protect Missouri from having to endure similar nightmares. The Missouri Alliance for Freedom had announced the Schaefer and Senator Bob Onder (R-St. Louis) were on the case. 

“With attacks on religious liberty inbound, the Missouri Alliance for Freedom is offering model legislation to protect Missourians religious freedom to be sponsored by State Senator Kurt Schaefer," the group announced in a press release. "The legislation will protect individuals, corporations, religious organizations and others who hold religious beliefs that do not comport with same-sex marriage proponents."

The only problem? 

LGBT status is not currently protected under the law in Missouri. You can already deny a same-sex couple a marriage license, or a cake, or a newspaper ad, with no legal repercussions.

So basically ...it's an election year. 

Says Rossi, "This is a bill that will make the religious right happy, at the expense of a huge swath of Missouri residents." But who needs a huge swath when the whole point is to win a Republican primary?

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com

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