JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri voters, who were among the first nationally to adopt a constitutional ban on gay marriage, could get a say later this year on whether to grant greater religious protections to some business owners and individuals who object to same-sex marriage.
A proposed constitutional amendment that got its first hearing Tuesday in a Senate committee would prohibit government penalties against those who decline to provide goods or services "of expressional or artistic creation" for same-sex marriage ceremonies and celebrations.
The Missouri measure doesn't list specific types of business people who would be covered — though it comes as bakers, florists and photographers in other states have faced legal challenges for declining to provide services for same-sex weddings.
Republican lawmakers in various states, including Georgia and West Virginia, have pushed measures that would expand religious protections following a U.S. Supreme Court decision last June that legalized gay marriage nationwide. A constitutional amendment also has been proposed in Oklahoma.
In some states, such proposals have drawn opposition from business groups concerned about the potential effect on the economy.
But Missouri's leading business groups stayed out of the fray Tuesday, testifying neither for nor against the proposal.
Missouri's four Republican gubernatorial candidates all expressed general support for religious protections Tuesday as they were officially filing their candidacy papers, though none was familiar with the details of the proposed constitutional amendment. Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster, who also is running for governor this year, declined to comment on religious exemption proposals.
State Sen. Bob Onder said his measure isn't intended as a "blanket" exemption from serving gay and lesbian customers.
"It's really more a matter of people not being commandeered into — being forced into — participating in a ceremony that violates their religious beliefs," said Onder, a Republican from Lake St. Louis.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has opposed similar efforts elsewhere, said the Missouri measure would "prevent the equal treatment" of lesbian and gay people, bar local governments from enforcing their own policies and harm the economy.
"This isn't about religious beliefs," said Sarah Rossi, director of advocacy and policy for the ACLU of Missouri. "This is about a personal, moral objection to something that has already been found constitutionally legal and a civil right by the United States Supreme Court."
The Supreme Court's ruling effectively invalidated a Missouri constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman. That amendment had been approved by 70 percent of Missouri voters in 2004 — making Missouri the first state to add a gay-marriage ban to its constitution after the Massachusetts Supreme Court permitted gay marriage in that state.
This year's proposed constitutional amendment would bar government penalties against clergy and churches that refuse to perform same-sex weddings or allow their facilities to be used for them. It also would protect religious organizations that act "in accordance with a sincere religious belief" concerning same-sex marriage. The definition includes religious schools, charities, hospitals, nursing homes and pregnancy centers, among others.
Several pastors and church leaders testified in support of the measure. Religious beliefs aren't only expressed during a worship service but are a way of life, said Michael Whitehead, a Kansas City attorney who is general counsel for the Missouri Baptist Convention.
"People should be able to practice what they preach and not be penalized by the government," he said.
The Senate Seniors, Families and Children Committee is expected to vote next week to advance the measure to the full Senate. If approved by lawmakers, it likely would appear on the ballot for the August primary or the November general election.
Religious protection measure is SJR39.
Missouri Senate: http://www.senate.mo.gov
Associated Press reporter Summer Ballentine contributed to this report. Follow David A. Lieb at: http://www.twitter.com/DavidALieb