- Associated Press - Thursday, February 16, 2012

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Supporters of a proposal in Kansas that’s described as an attempt to protect religious freedoms told state legislators Tuesday that President Obama’s ill-fated mandate for insurance coverage of birth control is a compelling example of why the measure is needed.

But gay-rights advocates said the primary goal of the conservative and religious groups pushing the bill continues to be nullifying local ordinances or university policies that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The state House Judiciary Committee had a hearing on the proposed Preservation of Religious Freedom Act and is expected to vote on it by Monday. State Rep. Lance Kinzer, a Republican who is committee chairman, contends the measure simply writes into state law language from past Kansas court decisions for determining when government policies place too much of a burden on practicing religion.

Still, neither supporters nor opponents are treating the measure as a straightforward restatement of existing legal standards. The gay rights group Kansas Equality Coalition mobilized members to lobby against it, and the measure has the backing of conservative groups such as the Kansas Family Policy Council and Concerned Women for America.

Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer and the Kansas Catholic Conference also weighed in, and both cited Mr. Obama’s recent push to require even religious organizations to offer employees health plans that cover contraceptives. The president backed away from the policy after strong protests from Catholic bishops and religious conservatives, though they still remain unhappy.

Kansas state Rep. Jim Ward (left), Wichita Democrat, asks questions during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on a bill that supporters will say will protect religious freedoms, as Rep. Jan Pauls (right) Hutchinson Democrat, follows the proceedings on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
Kansas state Rep. Jim Ward (left), Wichita Democrat, asks questions during a ... more >

The bill would declare that state- and local-government policies shall not “substantially burden” people’s right to exercise their religious beliefs without showing a compelling interest and imposing the burden in the least restrictive way possible. It also would declare that people have the right to sue state and local government agencies if they feel their religious freedoms have been abridged.

“Concern for religious freedom is not a theoretical concern,” said Michael Schuttloffel, lobbyist and executive director for the Catholic Conference. “An attack on anyone’s religious liberty, any group’s religious liberty, is an attack on everyone’s religious liberty.”

In citing Mr. Obama’s policy in making their arguments for the bill, supporters are appealing to a Republican-controlled Legislature that already has expressed opposition to the Democratic president’s agenda on health care and other issues. Last year, the committee tabled the measure amid questions about whether it was aimed at preventing state courts from citing Islamic law in decisions — an issue mentioned only in passing Tuesday.

But Tom Witt, the Equality Coalition’s executive director and lobbyist, said backers of the bill are most concerned about gay-rights advocates persuading cities to enact anti-bias ordinances to protect gays, lesbians and the transgendered. State law doesn’t specifically ban discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The bill specifically says there’s a compelling interest in prohibiting discriminatory practices barred by state law and the Kansas and U.S. constitutions. But it doesn’t mention local ordinances or agency policies that go further, such as an-anti bias ordinance in Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas.

Mr. Witt predicted a raft of lawsuits against local governments and universities.

And Lori Wagner, a retired Lawrence teacher, said, “If the underlying goal of this bill is to go after the gay people, we’re not going to have it.”

The proposed Preservation of Religious Freedom Act is HB 2260.