- Associated Press - Monday, April 6, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Religious objections measures in Arkansas and Indiana that prompted national criticism are similar to a law Kansas quietly enacted two years ago with the state’s leading gay-rights group officially neutral.

Since then, there has been a major shift in the political context surrounding the debate over legal protections for individuals, groups and businesses objecting to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

When Kansas enacted the law in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court hadn’t agreed to consider whether same-sex marriage must be allowed in all states. Kansas wasn’t in the national spotlight until 2014, when lawmakers considered but ultimately rejected a measure that would have protected individuals, churches and other “religious entities” from being sued or punished by the government for refusing to participate in or provide services to same-sex marriages.

“The marker has changed,” Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the gay-rights group that was neutral two years ago, said Monday. “The phrase ‘religious freedom’ has become a loaded phrase.”

The 2013 Kansas law - and similar statutes in 20 other states - were patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, arising from a case involving the use of peyote in a Native American ritual. The Kansas version passed by large, bipartisan legislative majorities.

Like the Indiana and Arkansas measures this year, the Kansas law says state or local governments can’t substantially inhibit a person’s exercise of religion without a compelling reason. A person could go to court to challenge government actions.

None of the measures specifically mentions same-sex marriage or gays and lesbians, but the resulting controversy over this year’s bills led Arkansas and Indiana to consider follow-up measures.

The Indiana and Arkansas measures specifically applied to individuals, groups and businesses. Some major corporations such as Apple and Wal-mart opposed the laws, saying they left the impression that those states were not welcoming to gay workers.

The Kansas law protects “persons” but defines the term as “any legal person or entity” under state or federal law. It is not clear if that would also apply to businesses.

Neither side in the debate could cite a legal case involving gays or lesbians based on the Kansas law, and the statute hasn’t been widely used.

But after this year’s controversies over the Indiana and Arkansas measures, Kansas state Sen. David Haley said it may need to be re-examined. Haley, a Kansas City Democrat, was among only four senators to vote against it two years ago, and other lawmakers haven’t taken up his call.

“I’ve been concerned with using religious freedoms as covers for discrimination of any kind,” Haley said.

Michael Schuttloffel, a lobbyist for the Kansas Catholic Conference, blames the furor over the Indiana and Arkansas proposals on a “disinformation’” campaign by critics. He said same-sex marriage advocates feel they’ve won the debate and now find such measures unacceptable, when five years ago, they would have seemed a reasonable compromise to all parties.

“They want to dictate terms of surrender,” he said. “Any opposition to same-sex marriage in the public square is completely unacceptable and must be driven from the public square.”

In 2011 and 2012, Kansas legislators considered religious objections measures declaring that government agencies would have no compelling interest in barring employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Witt argued that individuals, citing their religious beliefs, would have been allowed to sue local governments to overturn policies protecting gays and lesbians.

The measures stalled in the Senate. Witt pledged publicly that if the offending section were removed, his group would not oppose the rest, and in 2013, the section was excluded. Equality Kansas remained neutral, arguing that the resulting law did not target gays and lesbians.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, an Independence Republican, said: “Our law is a primary example that there are ways to recognize and protect religious freedom that are absolutely not discriminatory.”

King and other Senate leaders stopped last year’s measure dealing with gay marriage, which supporters said would protect groups, individuals and businesses not wanting to participate in same-sex ceremonies. Among other things, business groups said it would protect employees who violated company policies intended to ban discrimination against potential customers.

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Online:

Kansas’ 2013 law: https://bit.ly/1DTMDXa .

Indiana measure: https://bit.ly/1FFACWW .

Arkansas measure: https://bit.ly/1acpIKW .

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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