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'Religious shield' proposal endorsed by Missouri Senate after GOP breaks filibuster

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Republicans in the Missouri Senate have given first-round approval to legislation that would shield clergy and business owners from state penalties for refusing to work on same-sex weddings.

Democrats had filibustered Senate Joint Resolution 39 nonstop since Monday afternoon, but early Wednesday morning GOP leaders used a procedural move, known as "moving the previous question," to cut off debate and force a vote.

President Pro-tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, says Senate Democrats left them no choice.

"We thought that many times during the debate that we were not going to be able to move to some kind of a compromise," he told reporters Wednesday. "We've been going on for 40 hours, and we though that that was fair, but we couldn't come to a negotiated settlement that was fair to the sponsor (of the proposal) and to the (GOP) caucus."

The sponsor, Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, unveiled an amended version of the resolution before Republican leaders decided to use the PQ motion. It would protect businesses that say "no" to serving a same-sex wedding or reception, or if they close early on a day that wedding or reception is held.

He told reporters that the additional language was meant to further narrow the bill to specifically apply to wedding vendors and ensure that it could not be broadly interpreted to apply elsewhere.

Democrats called the compromise language "cosmetic" and continued their filibuster.

"It (was) still a pretty offensive and discriminatory bill," said Senate minority floor leader Joseph Keaveny, D-St. Louis.

The resolution needs one more vote by the full Senate before moving to the Missouri House, but Keaveny indicates that journey may still have a few obstacles in the way.

"We really haven't decided whether we're going to filibuster it again, or how we're going to approach it," he said. "We'll decide tomorrow morning before the session (begins) whether to filibuster it, or exactly what approach we're going to take."

That approach could include parliamentary procedures to slow down or even shut down work on anything scheduled to happen Thursday. Senate Democrats used a similar tactic last year when Republicans forced a vote on a right-to-work bill.

Reaction to the first-round approval, and to the forced vote by Republicans, is drawing sharp criticism from other Democrats, as well as from the LGBT community and their supporters.

From Gov. Jay Nixon:

"Rewriting our state's constitution to condone discrimination would be contrary to our values and harmful to our economy. That's why Missourians across the state, including business leaders and clergy, have spoken out strongly against SJR 39. I applaud the historic effort by the Senate minority to block this resolution and urge members of the House to protect the rights of all Missourians by opposing this discriminatory measure."

From PROMO Executive Director Steph Perkins:

"We agree that religion is a fundamental right, which is why it is protected in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and in our existing Human Rights Act. We are not arguing that clergy and churches should be denied their freedom of religion. But those same religious beliefs cannot be used as a reason to deny someone the same services that are offered to the rest of the public by private businesses. And that is exactly what SJR 39 aims to do. Businesses and organizations have already been rightly concerned about the consequences of this bill and are outspoken in their opposition."

From Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri:

"Laws that promote discrimination are anti-democratic, harm Missouri families, and – as we’ve learned in Indiana – are bad for our economy. That is why so many Missourians, including clergy and business leaders, strongly oppose any effort – such as SJR 39 – that would seek to enshrine inequality in our Missouri Constitution."

On the other side of the political aisle, Senate Republicans are being praised for their actions. From fellow Republican Catherine Hanaway, who's running for governor:

"I commend those Republican state senators who stood up for all Missourians' First Amendment rights. Missourians' religious liberties should not be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. Today is a step in the right direction for protecting every Missourian's freedom of religion."

Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, who's also running for lieutenant governor, defended the vote in a fundraising letter distributed hours after the filibuster ended:

"This morning, the Missouri Senate took a major step to protect our religious liberties, breaking a nearly 40-hour filibuster to reach a vote on an important constitutional amendment that would protect the rights of clergy, religious organizations, and individuals across our state. "Of course, this is not the end of the fight. Our freedom of religion is constantly under threat by liberals who seem to think the First Amendment doesn't matter. "Liberals claim they are arguing for tolerance, but what they really want is to extinguish our freedom of religion. Tolerance is acknowledging that others may have different beliefs than you and allowing others to exercise their beliefs. Rather than embrace tolerance, liberals want to keep anyone from holding religious beliefs that do not line up with their own worldview. "We cannot let liberals continue to try to push God out of our lives."

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who's running for governor, praised the vote in a series of tweets:

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.