Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The "Religious Freedom" Anti-Freedom Bill

Two years ago I ran for the Kansas House of Representatives as a Democrat in western Shawnee. Voter registration numbers made it very clear from the outset that a Democrat would have near zero odds of winning but I wanted to provide an alternative for voters who had told me they were fiscally conservative but socially liberal. I heard this sentence stated by over 90% of the voters I spoke with.

Sadly, the fiscal pieces those constituents had counted on by voting for many of the Republicans on the state ballot have not come to fruition. In fact, despite the misleading communications sent out by those elected leaders, Kansas is quickly falling behind neighboring states, having lost 7,400 jobs last month.

Higher education has been cut and school districts across the state are reeling from faltering budget concerns. Public education is still embroiled in a lawsuit because the state hasn’t maintained the very funding standards they themselves set.

In the meantime, many state representatives spent most of last year’s legislative session attacking abortion, gun regulations, and teacher unions. In doing so, they left their one mandated responsibility, the state budget, until the very end, resulting in huge monetary costs to our state when they were forced to extend the session (the first time that had ever happened since the 1860’s).

A few weeks ago, our Shawnee State Senator, Mary Pilcher-Cook, made a mockery of the state capital by hosting an ultrasound after introducing a bill to make surrogacy illegal and punishable by fines and imprisonment. Even many of the most socially conservative members of her party found the bill to be ridiculous.

And this week, Shawnee State Representative Charles Macheers introduced HB 2453, the “Religious Freedom” bill. The bill, based upon its language, would make it legal for any public or private employee to refuse services to any citizen based upon “sexual orientation or gender.”

Representative Macheers claims he introduced this bill to protect against religious persecution in our state. On the surface, the bill protects a florist from having to provide flowers for a same sex wedding (which is still not legal in Kansas) or a church from having to perform a same sex wedding ceremony (churches are already protected from this in Kansas). And make no mistake, Mr. Macheers isn't concerned with all religions being protected; only the one he practices.

The bill is so poorly worded (Mr. Macheers is, amazingly, a licensed attorney) that it would protect a law enforcement officer from responding to a domestic violence call if it is made by a same sex couple. In these types of cases, seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Could this also mean a firefighter could refuse to save a gay couple if their house was burning? Or that a Johnson County EMT could refuse to respond to a gay man in the midst of cardiac arrest? Could a public teacher refuse to teach the child of a gay couple in his/her classroom… or to hold a parent/teacher conference with the parents?

The bill is so poorly worded that it would protect a government employee from providing service to heterosexual couples in which the wife is the primary bread winner if the employee is religiously opposed to women working outside of the home.

The larger issue, however, is one of civil rights. While sexual orientation is not defined under the equal protection clause, gender most certainly is. In addition, The Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional "as a deprivation of the equal liberty of the person ... protected by the Fifth Amendment".

I’ve been blasted with correspondence from gay and straight friends alike, wanting to know why this bill was introduced and whether or not it is a precursor towards other discriminatory bills from our local group of legislators. While the bill proposes to “protect” religious freedoms, I’ve yet to meet a single person whose religious freedoms have been violated by a homosexual (if this is a chronic issue step forward; but please, be clear with the details of “violated”).

On the flip side, my gay friends have felt deeply the effects of discrimination, specifically those who have been in loving and committed relationships with their partners for longer than most of my married heterosexual friends (frankly, almost half of the heterosexuals I know have at least one divorce under their belt, but I digress).

These friends feel the pain of having worked hard, paid taxes, been good neighbors and community citizens, loving parents (yes, they have children), and in one particular case having even served this nation honorably in the armed services.

They feel the sting of this bill as meaning they are second class citizens, less deserving of equal treatment by those same government employees their taxes pay, all because a particular religion disagrees with their private lives.

My question to Mr. Macheers and those who support this bill is this: where does it end? If a devout Muslim working at Wal Mart believes, as part of their religious belief, that women should cover their head does this bill protect them from refusing to assist women who go through their line without head cover? And how are employees to determine who is gay and who isn’t? Will we next require all homosexuals to wear a large red “H” on the outside of their clothing?

Which religiously perceived non-judicially identified criminal “sin” is to be next on the hit list?

Your intent, while claiming to “protect” religious freedoms, has been lost in the complete incompetence of the bill’s wording. In addition, religious freedoms necessarily and vitally protect every single American to believe and worship as they choose. But when related laws allow American citizens to trample and trod on the freedoms of other citizens, they are in violation of our constitution.

As an example, religious belief has been deeply rooted in the KKK (do cross burnings ring a bell?). Feeling racist is not illegal; violating the rights of others because of your racist beliefs, even if the foundation of your racism is religion, is. A gay man or woman approaching the desk of a county clerk and requesting a form in no way, shape or form, forces the clerk to have to perform any form of sexual act contrary to their beliefs. And the more I ponder this, the more insane it feels.

As Shawnee voters, it is time to wake up. Your legislators have lost sight of our need to find sound fiscal solutions to the state’s deepening budget issues and have crossed into offering legislation that will land our state right in the center of the Supreme Court’s docket and in the annals of late night comedian history.

You have a choice in November. Remember these bills and remember who wrote them.

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