Loophole in Senate bill alarms gay rights organizations

A bill is making its way to the senate floor that bolsters protections for freedom of religion, but gay rights organizations say is a platform for discrimination.

Senate Bill 916 was introduced February 24, in the midst of a national debate over whether employees of businesses can cite religion as a reason to refuse service to people.

"It's under attack across the nation," said Missouri Senator Wayne Wallingford (R). "People are being more restrictive on religious liberties, and I just want to make sure that people will still be able to defend their religious liberties as the Constitution provides."

The bill adds civil protections to the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act", passed in 2003. It also mandates that the government demonstrate a "compelling interest" in restricting a person's free exercise of religion.

"An example is take a Bible study in a neighborhood," Wallingford said. "People were upset because of cars in the neighborhood. This bill would allow them to at least defend against any suit coming to them. They can say they are exercising their religious liberties to have a Bible study in their home."

However, the gay rights organization PROMO says that while the bill does not provide a basis for a defense in discrimination, the civil rights laws that it points back to do not include sexual orientation as a protected status.

"Sex, veteran status, all these areas are currently protected, but sexual orientation and gender identity are not," said PROMO Executive Director A.J. Bockelman. "For that reason, you can see someone using religion as a way to bar someone from providing services."

"This is very similar to what we see in Kansas or Arizona," Bockelman said.

Lobbyist Kerri Messer of the Missouri Family network said the bill is not intended to discriminate against LGBT individuals, and that the lack of a protected class for gays and lesbians is a detail his organization overlooked.

"We haven't looked at that," Messer said. "We were looking at the broad, overarching view of protecting religious liberties. We'd have to go back and look at specifics."

Wallingford said Missouri Senate Bill 916 will not go to the Senate floor until after spring break.

Bockelman said he doesn't believe the bill will go very far, but Senator Wallingford said there is widespread support for such a bill in Missouri.