Missouri 'religious freedom' bill spurs backlash

Bill could legalize discrimination against gays

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A bill introduced in the Missouri state senate Tuesday closely resembles controversial bills in Kansas and Arizona now at the center of a national debate over the right of businesses to refuse service, notably to gays and lesbians, based on religious beliefs.

State Senator Wayne Wallingford of Cape Girardeau introduced Senate Bill 916 on Tuesday and told the Kansas City Star its purpose was to “protect Missourians from attacks on their religious freedom.”

But gay rights groups were quick to fire back, calling the bill-- like its predecessors in Kansas and Arizona-- a tool for institutionalizing discrimination against gays and lesbians, who they believe would be the primary targets of businesses refusing service.

“If I as a gay man want to go into a restaurant, you shouldn't be able to tell me that I can't go there because of who I go home to at night,” Equality Missouri Campaign Director Caleb-Michael Files said. “Yes, it affects the LGBT community, but it’s a discrimination bill for everybody.”

Wallingford did not return multiple calls to his office requesting comment on the bill.

Dale Nueman, a former UMKC political science professor and current director of the Harry S. Truman Center for Government Affairs said on Tuesday he thought the bill had little chance of becoming law, with Democratic governor Jay Nixon likely to veto it should it ever escape the legislature.

“Those who believe in its purpose, it’s basically a religious freedom bill. Those who believe it’s a subterfuge, it’s a license to discriminate,” Neuman said. “This kind of issue becomes a symbolic issue that has no price other than the time of the people who debate it.”

Neuman said the bill was likely designed to generate support and name recognition in Wallingford’s home district and called it essentially low-hanging fruit; the kind of legislation with little or no cost to pursue.

“Symbolic legislation is something that members of legislatures like to do because they get headlines, they get publicity, they don’t have to engage in intense debate and they don't have to shift money around,” Neuman said.

Meanwhile, national Republicans, including the party's last two presidential nominees, and business leaders have urged Arizona Governor Jan Brewer to veto a similar measure in that state – highlighting the fractures in a Republican party looking for national respect and a big tent as well as local and state leaders more closely tied to the grassroots.  

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