Missouri religious exemption measure advances

AP News
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Posted: Mar 09, 2016 1:44 PM
Missouri religious exemption measure advances

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri's Republican-led Senate on Wednesday advanced a proposal to add greater religious protections to the state Constitution for some business owners and individuals opposed to gay marriage after Democrats stalled a vote for about 37 hours.

The move marked an end to a stalemate emblematic of a national debate over balancing civil rights and religious liberties following last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.

The proposed amendment to the Missouri Constitution would prohibit government penalties against those who cite "a sincere religious belief" while declining to provide goods or services of "expressional or artistic creation" for same-sex marriage ceremonies or celebrations.

The measure was revised Wednesday to specifically state that florists and photographers would be protected and to clarify that it applies to services provided for a reception taking place around the same time as a wedding ceremony.

The measure comes after bakers and florists have faced legal challenges in other states for declining to provide services for same-sex weddings due to their religious beliefs.

"No one should be compelled to make a work with their own hands that's offensive to their beliefs," Republican sponsor Sen. Bob Onder said during debate on the measure.

Democrats fought the measure for days, saying it would allow discrimination against same-sex couples and could hurt the state economy.

Republicans used a rare procedural move early Wednesday to force an end to the Democratic filibuster that started Monday afternoon and had veered into unrelated topics — such as "Star Wars" trivia, senators' families and how long it had been since they had showered. Senators then gave the measure first-round approval by a 23-9 vote.

"The debate was starting to meander," Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard told reporters. "We couldn't come to a negotiated settlement. ... We had to move on."

A second Senate vote is expected Thursday to send the measure to the House, where Republican leaders also have expressed support. If passed by both chambers, the proposal would appear before voters either on the August primary or November general election ballot. It would bypass Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who opposed the measure.

"Rewriting our state's constitution to condone discrimination would be contrary to our values and harmful to our economy," Nixon said Wednesday in an emailed statement.

Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny, of St. Louis, said it's unclear how Democrats will respond to the Republicans' move. They will have another chance to filibuster when the measure is brought up for a final Senate vote.

"Why are we allowing any kind of discrimination?" Keaveny said. "In this case, we're almost encouraging it."

Missouri's largest statewide business organizations have taken no position on the measure, though the St. Louis Regional Chamber has raised concerns.

Some businesses, including St. Louis agricultural giant Monsanto, have opposed it.

Republican lawmakers in various states also have pushed religious protection measures following the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. Onder said the Missouri measure is more narrowly crafted than some that have faced a backlash — for example, a proposal in Indiana that was criticized by businesses.

"This bill does not in any way create any kind of broad religious exemption or any broad right to deny services," said Onder, of Lake St. Louis. "It's really only this very limited situation of wedding vendors."

If approved by voters, critics said the proposal could be subject to court challenges.

"This amendment raises serious constitutional concerns because it singles out same-sex couples for discrimination," Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, said in a statement.

The filibuster marked the longest continuous debate in recent Missouri history. Four Senate Democrats — including current U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. — led a 38-hour filibuster spread over five legislative days against an abortion bill in 1999. That bill ultimately passed the Senate.

The last time Republican Senate leaders employed used a procedural move to shut off debate was during the final week of session last year, and Democrats in response stalled action in the chamber for days.

There still are about two months left in this year's legislative session, which ends in mid-May.

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Missouri religious protection measure is SJR 39.

Online:

Senate: http://www.senate.mo.gov