- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Several hundred people who object to providing goods or services that are against their religious beliefs gathered Wednesday inside the Kansas Statehouse to hear speeches, while a House committee was briefed on the topic by a florist from Washington state.

The crowd, which included Catholic school students and a motif of red, white and blue clothing, heard from Ryan Anderson with the conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation, who said the federal government infringed on “religious freedom” by threatening to remove accreditation for faith-based schools that oppose same-sex marriage.

“And if your freedoms are going to be protected, it’s because you’re going to demand that they be protected,” he said to applause.

He also said the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling that Hobby Lobby and other small business owners were exempted from covering certain contraception for their female employees because of their religious beliefs was “America at her finest.”

Another speaker was Houston pastor Hernan Castano, who was one of five pastors in that Texas city subpoenaed for their opposition to the city’s new equal rights ordinance, which protects same-sex couples and other targeted groups from discrimination.

“They want to silence the voice of freedom of religion,” Castano said.

Republican Governor Sam Brownback, a devout Catholic, concluded the rally by urging activists to continue fighting for “religious liberty for all people.”

Religious objection laws were passed last year in Indiana and Arkansas. The Kansas Senate and a House committee approved a bill that would protect religious groups on campus from refusing membership to gays or lesbians, but there has been no action in the full House this year.

Tennessee is considering a bill that would allow therapists or counselors in private practice to deny service to patients because of “sincerely held religious beliefs,” something opponents say will result in denying treatment to gay patients.

Before the rally in Kansas, the House’s Federal and State Affairs Committee, heard from Washington state florist Barronelle Stutzman, who was sued for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding because she believes “marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Topeka Republican Rep. Dick Jones spoke in support of Stutzman, adding that her “fight is going to be long and hard,” and said those who criticize people’s sexual orientation are often demonized.

“The Supreme Court has in fact established a third sex … we have male, female and gay,” Jones said. He added that it has served as a rally-cry for demanding equality.

Kellie Fiedorek, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, says the national group that’s focused on religious freedom issues is representing several defendants in lawsuits similar to what Stutzman faces throughout the country.

The briefing was criticized by Thomas Witt of the gay rights group Equality Kansas as a “one-sided attack” because opponents were not invited to speak. Had he the opportunity, he said, he would have “set (Jones) straight.”

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