By Simon Brown
If Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Lt. Gov. Jeff Coyler get their way, it will be legal to discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons in the state – as long as you do it in the name of religion.
A Lawrence, Kan., ordinance that offers broader protections against discrimination than state laws, prevents outright forms of bias. But a bill being considered by the Kansas House of Representatives, HB 2260, would overturn that ordinance.
The bill essentially says government can’t stop anyone from exercising their religious rights unless it can show that religious exercise must be limited to advance a compelling government interest. HB 2260 would even let individuals sue the government if their exercise of religion “has been burdened, or is likely to be burdened.”
Coyler said Feb. 14 during a hearing on the bill that “the federal government’s recent attempts to trample the religious liberties of millions of Americans must be at the forefront of your debate,” according to the Lawrence Journal-World. “Religious liberty is at the heart of who we are as a people.”
This makes no sense. Even if President Barack Obama were trying to limit religious freedom (and he isn’t) with rules that would require employers to cover birth control for employees, that isn’t directly related to the civil rights of GLBT persons in Kansas. Coyler is making a leap in logic that is similar to people who say that legalizing same-sex marriage will lead to people wanting to marry chairs. It’s nonsense.
This does, however, have everything to do with limits on religious expression and the government’s place in setting those limits. Why should a government allow people to impose their religious beliefs on others, potentially at severe cost? We have a great deal of freedom in this country, but without some limits there would be chaos.
At the hearing on the bill, Vickie Sandell Stangl, president of the Great Plains Chapter of Americans United, testified that religious freedom shouldn’t be expanded at the expense of civil rights.
“If this bill were enacted, its provisions could be used to deny Kansas citizens access to critical healthcare and safety services,” she said. “Examples from cases explicate this potential problem: Based on their religious beliefs, a maternity ward nurse refused to scrub for an emergency caesarian section and left a woman ‘standing in a pool of blood,’ a nurse insisted on telling an AIDS patient and his partner about her views on salvation and that God ‘doesn’t like the homosexual lifestyle,’ and a police officer refused to guard an abortion clinic.’”
This bill has come up before. Last year it didn’t go anywhere, but this year its supporters have some added ammunition thanks to hysteria over the Obama mandate on birth control ginned up by the far right.
In support of the bill, Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, said “increasingly, freedom of religion is being reduced and confined to little more than the freedom to worship in a private setting,” according to the Journal-World.
What Coyler, Schuttloffel and other advocates of this bill are really doing is using “religious freedom” as a justification for allowing some Kansans to impose their religion onto others. It also seeks to tie the government’s hands. After all, if a government is severely limited from protecting basic rights because the law makes it almost impossible to do so, how long before that government simply gives up?
Religious freedom is not under attack in the United States. Those who claim it is are using tactics of fear and distortion to justify radical changes that would make it much easier for them to impose their narrow version of faith onto unwilling third parties. Legislation like this can crush rights and spawn chaos, which is why every effort must be made to make sure that HB 2260 ends up on the legislative scrap heap, just as it did last year.