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Business groups launch offensive against 'religious shield' amendment

Civic Progress President Tom Irwin stands with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon at the St. Louis Regional Chamber. Business groups held a presser condemning the amendment.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Civic Progress President Tom Irwin stands with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon at the St. Louis Regional Chamber. Business groups held a presser condemning the amendment.

Missouri’s business organizations are waging an all out attack on an amendment aimed at allowing clergy and business owners to refuse services to same-sex weddings. 

The measure, known as SJR39, was the central focus of a nearly two-day-long filibuster by Missouri Senate Democrats.Republicans employed a rarely used parliamentary procedure known as the "previous question" to squelch the talk-a-thon, and now the amendment awaits action in the Missouri House.

But since SJR39 passed the Senate, numerous businesses and business groups came out against the measure – including the traditionally GOP-friendly Missouri Chamber of Commerce.And during a Friday press conference with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, members of the powerful St. Louis business community urged the House to set the amendment aside. 

St. Louis Regional Chamber President Joe Reagan
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Regional Chamber President Joe Reagan

“This resolution is a political maneuver that is simply wrongheaded,” said St. Louis Regional Chamber President Joe Reagan. “And quite frankly, it’s just wrong to embed the concept of discrimination into our Missouri Constitution.”

Monsanto executive vice president for human resources Steve Mizell said SJR39 could make it harder to attract capable employees to work for his company in Missouri. 

“I’m going to be really frank,” Mizell said. “We have a real challenge as we think about attracting new talent to this region, never mind to our own company. And increasing that complexity and that challenge I think will be a real problem for not just us, but for a number of colleagues that are here and others who aren’t.”

Several speakers at the press conference noted that the NCAA expressed concerns about SJR39.And some – including St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission President Kitty Ratcliffe – said she worried the measure could result in lost event opportunities.

“Our brand took a significant hit in 2014 because of the impact of the events in Ferguson. And we’ve been on the road to recovery ever since,” Ratcliffe said. “SJR39 is a negative impact that we cannot afford to have. While we acknowledge the truths that Ferguson brought forth and are working as a region and as a state to address them, we know this is a great place. As any other place it comes with flaws. But it is great.

“The people of our region are warm and they are friendly. And they create a hospitable environment that makes visiting us fun,” she added. “SJR39 does not support that message. And while we are certain its authors were not intending to cause harm, the fact that this bill is going to be harmful to our state’s image and to our economy.”

'Deeply disappointed'

For his part, the sponsor of SJR39 – Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis – said on Thursday he was dismayed by how business groups have come out against his bill. He added that the Missouri Chamber of Commerce’s opposition was especially disappointing. 

Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, said he is confident that Richard will be able to effectively lead the Senate. "I believe Ron has a record of proven leadership," he said.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, is the sponsor of SJR39.

“They claim to represent thousands of Missouri businesses – including my own,” said Onder, who is a physician. “And yet, they come to the legislature every year with dozens – if not a couple of hundred – of asks. And here, they come to the legislature this time telling us they oppose a measure that would safeguard religious liberty. To say I’m deeply disappointed would be an understatement.

“I think they are responding to some concerns of a couple of larger members, larger dues payers that quite frankly my religious amendment has nothing to do with their businesses either,” he added.

Before the Senate cut off the Democratic filibuster, Onder’s amendment was changed so that it was more narrowly tailored to businesses that are involved in weddings– such as florists or photographers. He has said that there have been lawsuits in other states against businesses who didn’t supply services to same-sex couples.

“The private businesses that would be protected by this amendment are those in the wedding industry,” Onder said. “Typically, we’re talking about florists or photographers or musicians who really don’t want to be punished by the government for refusing to be commandeered into a religious ceremony that violates their own sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The Missouri House hasn’t acted on Onder’s bill yet. When asked this week what impact the opposition of business groups would have on the measure’s trajectory, House Speaker Todd Richardson said “we welcome input on every issue from a wide selection of people.” 

Missouri House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said SJR39 will be referred to committee after the legislature returns from its spring break.
Credit Tim Bommel I House Communications
Missouri House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said SJR39 will be referred to committee after the legislature returns from its spring break.

“I’d ask them to take a hard look at what’s in the bill. I think religious liberty is an important principle,” said Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff. “And we want to get that principle right. But look, we understand that this is going to be an issue that’s going to cause intense feelings on both sides of the issue. So the House can take a hard look at it when we get back [from the legislative spring break].”

Richardson said the measure will be referred to committee after the legislature reconvenes in late March. After that, he said "we'll see what the will of the body is."

'Ridiculously overblown'

During Friday’s press conference, Nixon told reporters that Onder’s bill amounted to a solution in search of a problem. In fact, he went so far to say that the “concerns are ridiculously overblown.” 

“The federal constitution already provides religious rights to everyone in this country,” Nixon said. “They have not been able to come up with a single fact evidence saying that what they’re trying to prevent has even happened in Missouri.”

Nixon also said that the focus on getting the amendment passed showcased the GOP-controlled legislature’s skewed priorities.

“This wasn’t on anybody’s list as a way to move the state forward,” Nixon said. “And then to see it pushed forward the way it was in the very contentious manner in which it was passed. They had to shut down people’s freedom of speech to pass this attack on freedom of religion. That’s a two-fer that’s pretty hard to do.”

(Onder had less-than-flattering things to say about Nixon’s opposition to his amendment. “What do I make of that? I make it of it that it’s another misguided move by a failed governor,” he said. “And I guess he’s trying to do something that will gather him some attention in the final months of his administration.”)

In any case, if the amendment passes out of the legislature, Missouri voters will have to approve it. But Reagan said Richardson shouldn’t even let things get to that point.

“Step back and don’t forward on SJR39,” Reagan said. “This is the wrong time to send that message to business. If there are issues to address, address those issues directly – not in a broad legislation that addresses fears that have not been realized.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.