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Dozens testify on 'religious shield' for same-sex marriage opponents

Marshall Griffin|St. Louis Public Radio

Business and religious leaders were on opposite sides at a committee hearing on a proposed amendment to the Missouri Constitution that would shield some people from participating in or selling services to a same-sex wedding.

Senate Joint Resolution 39 passed the Senate last month, but only after Republican leaders forced a vote and shutdown a nearly 40-hour filibuster by Democrats.

According to the summary language, “This proposed constitutional amendment, if approved by the qualified voters of this state, prohibits the state from imposing a penalty on a religious organization who acts in accordance with a sincere religious belief concerning same sex marriage, which includes the refusal to perform a same sex marriage ceremony or allow a same sex wedding ceremony to be performed on the religious organization's property.

“The state cannot penalize an individual who declines, due to sincere religious beliefs, to provide goods of expressional or artistic creation for a same sex wedding ceremony.“

The proposed constitutional amendment took center stage Tuesday night during a meeting of the House committee on emerging issues that began shortly after 8 p.m. and ended at 12:23 a.m. this morning. It began with testimony from the sponsor, Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis.

"It is a shield, not a sword," he said. "Its scope is to protect religious organizations that are now vulnerable, and a narrow class of individuals, some wedding vendors. It is much more (narrowly tailored) than so-called religious freedom restoration acts in other states ... it does not permit refusals of service more generally, for instance, a restaurant or a hardware store or a gas station."

That reassurance was not enough for fellow Republican Anne Zerr of St. Charles, who supports the right of same-sex couples to marry.

"I really want to hammer something out here that works," she said. "If we'd be willing to make an amendment that perhaps would take out the business component and leave the clergy protected ... we've got to give the best product to the voters that we can."

The committee did not make any amendments to the measure Tuesday night, but could do so later. Amendments could also be added on if or when SJR39 makes it to the House floor.

But amending the proposal would require that it be sent back to the Senate, and that could result in another filibuster, forced vote, and work slowdown that could jeopardize other bills with just a month left in this year's legislative session.

Roughly 150 people crowded into one of the House's hearing rooms in the basement of the Missouri Capitol, with nearly two dozen of them testifying either for or against the measure. Most of the opposition came from the business community, which included Dwayne Simpson of St. Louis-based Monsanto:

"We’re asking you not to make our job harder," Simpson said. "We try to bring the best and brightest employees from across the world to St. Louis to work in our business … and doing so, having an open and inclusive environment, is something that's important to our ability to recruit those employees."

Dan Mehan of the Missouri Chamber testifies against the proposed constitutional amendment, saying it would have a negative economic impact on Missouri.
Credit Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
Dan Mehan of the Missouri Chamber testifies against the proposed constitutional amendment, saying it would have a negative economic impact on Missouri.

Dan Mehan, CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, testified that the measure, commonly known as SJR39, represents an "undeniable negative economic impact" that could occur to Missouri.

"And why would we want to risk those threats?" Mehan said. "While we recognize that SJR39 is probably more benign than what (other) states have enacted, it is, again, undeniable that there is concern over various areas of industry, tourism, and convention business that would be negative for the state of Missouri."

Other states that have enacted laws that combine same-sex marriage with other issues. A new Mississippi law, according to the Washington Post, "protects 'sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions,' including the belief that marriage is only between a man and a woman and that sexual relations should only occur in such a marriage. It also says that a person’s gender is 'determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth' and goes on to say that businesses can determine who is allowed to access bathrooms, dressing rooms and locker rooms."

Marc Schreiber of the private nonprofit St. Louis Sports Commission testified that the state could lose numerous sporting events:

"We are entering a bid process for all NCAA championships, from 2019 to 2022. Realistically for us in St. Louis, we could get multiple NCAA wrestling championships, multiple NCAA basketball postseason events, the NCAA (Hockey) Frozen Four, the women's volleyball championship, but could very well likely lose those if the resolution passes the House. We'll lose out on those events and more than $55 million in direct visitor spending. Throw in the U.S. figure skating championships for 2019, Olympic trials for 2020, and already-secured events that may go elsewhere, and that number could climb to $80 million."

From the other side of the Show-Me State, Kathy Nelson with the Kansas City Sports Commission testified that her city is set to host eight championship contests, including the Big 12 men's basketball tournament and U.S. figure skating.

"That's $51 million in economic impact and about $3 million in state tax revenue," she said.

Nelson also said they're planning to make a pitch to the NFL to host a future super bowl, but indicated that passing SJR39 would doom their chances.

Most of the bill's supporters came from the religious and political realms, including Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder testifies with Sen. Bob Onder in favor of SJR 39.
Credit Marshall Griffin|St. Louis Public Radio
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder speaks in favor of SJR39.

“Let the people decide," Kinder said. "I'm really disappointed that in this heated debate that there are those who want to foreclose that public debate and deny the people of Missouri the chance to hear that debate and decide for themselves what goes in our constitution."

Phil Hopper is another SJR39 supporter. He's pastor of Abundant Life Church in Lee's Summit, which has an average weekly attendance of 4,000 people.

"It is unconstitutional to discriminate based on sexual orientation, (but) it is equally unconstitutional to discriminate for one's religion," he said.

Hopper said that "people of faith" fear that government agencies will eventually use last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling as a means to persecute opponents of same-sex marriage.

"It's already happened in other states, and so this is a real clear and present fear that people in our state have," he said.

Committee member Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, challenged Hopper's statement, saying Obergefell v. Hodges does not take any rights away from people who object to gay marriage on religious grounds.

"I cannot compel you to marry me," he told Hopper. "You are protected, and so is your church."

Hopper disagreed: "Based on the response of the solicitor general when the U.S. Supreme Court made their statement, there's a reason people of faith believe that will be tested one day."

The section of the ruling that both sides have been using to bolster their arguments:

"...it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons. In turn, those who believe allowing same-sex marriage is proper or indeed essential, whether as a matter of religious conviction or secular belief, may engage those who disagree with their view in an open and searching debate. The Constitution, however, does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex."

The House emerging issues committee did not vote Tuesday on SJR39. However, five members of the committee stayed behind and continued to hear testimony, albeit informally, from several people who didn't get to speak before the hearing was adjourned.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

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

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