KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A bill that would have allowed individuals to refuse to provide business services to same-sex couples in Kansas because of religious beliefs met a surprising and quick end last week when conservative senators sided with liberal advocates in saying the measure promoted discrimination.
The bill had passed the House, 72-49, last Wednesday, and it appeared it might also sail through the Senate. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans who in recent years have passed some of the most conservative legislation in the country, whether on gun control, abortion rights or taxes.
Susan Wagle, a conservative Republican who is president of the Kansas Senate, raised opposition to the House measure, saying she had “grown concerned about the practical impact of the bill” and “my members don’t condone discrimination.”
Wagle was backed by Sen. Jeff King, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who said he would not hold hearings on the House bill. Instead, King said, his committee would hold hearings on the broader topic of religious freedom in Kansas and explore whether the Legislature needed to take any further steps to shore up those protections.
Last year, the Legislature passed the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, which protects residents from government burdens that may force them to break their religious beliefs. That bill stemmed in part from concerns that employers could be forced to provide contraception under the federal health care law.
The bill proposed in this year’s session would explicitly allow any individual to raise a religious objection in refusing to recognize same-sex couples or provide them with services.
“The public outcry by midweek had reached such a volume that the Senate just wasn’t going to be able to take it up,” said Thomas Witt, the executive director of Equality Kansas, a nonprofit group that strongly opposed the bill.
The measure’s supporters had said the bill was aimed at marriage services and protecting businesses, like photographers and hotels, that did not want to be involved with same-sex marriage ceremonies. But critics said the language of the measure was so broad it would lead to discrimination against gays in Kansas.
Opponents included the Kansas Chamber of Commerce. The chamber took particular exception to a provision in the bill that said if an employee of the government or “other nonreligious entity” objected to providing a service based on religious beliefs, the employer would have to find another employee to fill in or find some other way to provide the service.