Big-name Missouri businesses oppose religious objections law

AP News
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Posted: Apr 12, 2016 11:36 PM

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — More than 60 businesses including some of Missouri's biggest corporate names joined a coalition opposed to state legislation that would protect businesses objecting on religious grounds to same-sex marriages, the latest sign of a backlash against such proposals across the country.

Agricultural giant Monsanto, prescription drug benefits manager Express Scripts, and pet food maker Nestle Purina are among employers to join the recently formed Missouri Competes, according to gay rights advocacy group PROMO, which released the list just hours before a House committee heard testimony from business and religious groups. Dozens crammed in the Capitol basement for the late-night hearing.

The formation of the coalition comes amid business pushback to legislation in other states protecting those opposed to gay marriage.

Several states and cities have banned travel to Mississippi in response to a law signed by the Republican governor last week to let workers cite religious beliefs to deny services to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the Missouri measure, has pointed to Indiana as another example of the business backlash. A public-private tourism group has estimated that Indiana lost $60 million in hotel profits, tax revenues and other economic benefits after Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence last year signed religious-objections legislation.

Leaders of utility company Ameren and BJC HealthCare are among those who signed a letter earlier this month in opposition to business provisions in the Missouri measure.

Supporters argue the Missouri law is intentionally narrower than laws passed in other states and is necessary to protect some businesses from being forced to violate religious beliefs.

The proposal would allow voters to decide whether to amend the Missouri Constitution to ban government penalties against businesses that cite religion while declining goods or services of "expressional or artistic creation" for same-sex weddings. That would include florists and photographers.

The measure comes after bakers and florists have faced legal challenges in other states for declining to provide services for same-sex weddings. It also would shield clergy, places of worship and other religious organizations from being penalized for not participating in marriages involving same-sex partners.

In written testimony addressed to House committee members reviewing the bill, the Missouri Catholic Conference said "no person should be forced to personally attend and participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony if this violates their sincerely held religious beliefs."

Opponents say it would enshrine discrimination in the Constitution.

Hart Nelson, the vice president of public policy at the St. Louis Regional Chamber, said Tuesday that the legislation threatens the state's reputation and could make it difficult for businesses to recruit candidates for jobs.

St. Louis-based Monsanto has similarly decried the measure as an economic hindrance. Lobbyist Duane Simpson, in planned testimony provided by Monsanto, noted the company includes gender identity and sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy and backs adopting similar policies statewide.

"We do not believe it is good enough to simply have the right corporate policies if our employees and customers don't enjoy basic freedoms and protections in their daily lives," Simpson said in a written copy of the testimony.

Republican Rep. Anne Zerr, chairwoman of a House commerce committee said, "talent is gay and straight." She also voiced concerns that enacting the measure would harm the state during the hearing, which stretched on passed 10:30 p.m.

But Republican bill sponsor Sen. Bob Onder said the concerns were "overblown and hyperbole."

"Missourians are going to resent being bullied by corporate elites," Onder said. He went on to say that "consumers are going to wake up and start boycotting these companies."

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, the only Republican who holds statewide office and a candidate for governor, spoke in favor of the legislation and said it should be up to voters to decide.

"This is not about discrimination, as opponents are trying to spin it," Kinder said. He later said that "nobody's trying to punish gays."

The measure passed the Senate in March following a failed 37-hour filibuster by Democrats. If passed by the GOP-led House, it would sidestep Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and head to voters this year.

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Missouri religious protection measure is SJR 39

Online:

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

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Follow Summer Ballentine at https://twitter.com/esballentine