Kansas Senate likely to reject bill denying services to gay couples

KANSAS CITY, Kansas (Reuters) - Opposition grew on Friday in Kansas to a bill that would allow businesses and other groups to refuse certain services and benefits to same-sex couples on the basis of “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The Kansas Senate will likely reject the bill, which the Kansas House approved on Wednesday, the Senate’s president said. Meanwhile, a newly formed statewide business coalition said it would oppose the measure.

Senator Susan Wagle, a Republican, said the majority of her caucus does not support the bill on the grounds that it may encourage bias.

“A strong majority of my members support laws that define traditional marriage, protect religious institutions, and protect individuals from being forced to violate their personal moral values,” Wagle said in statement on Thursday night.

“However, my members also don’t condone discrimination.”

The measure passed the House 72-49. Republicans outnumber Democrats 32-8 in the Senate and 92-33 in the House. The bill will go to a Senate committee but probably not until early next month when the Senate takes up House bills, said a spokeswoman for Wagle.

The bill would allow individuals and groups to claim a religious exemption as a basis to deny same-sex couples counseling, adoption and foster care as well as accommodations or goods related to their partnership.

Supporters of the bill say being forced to recognize same-sex unions violates religious freedom.

People working for a governmental entity or non-religious organization could not be fired or penalized for declining to render services based on their religious beliefs, but the bill would require services to be performed by another employee.

The newly formed Kansas Employers for Liberty Coalition said the bill would cause unjust government interference into the relationship between workers and employers.

Small businesses with just a few employees would have a hard time functioning if one of the employees was allowed to refuse service to some customers, said Megan Bottenberg, a representative for the group.

Tim Witsman, president of the Wichita Independent Business Association, said in a coalition news release that the bill could also make good workers less likely to move to Kansas if they see it as state that discriminates.

“While we believe this bill may have been brought with good intentions of protecting religious freedom, the unintended consequences far outweigh the good,” Witsman said.

Kansas is among 33 U.S. states that ban same-sex marriage, and the bill would address same-sex couples legally married in other states.

Over the last decade, same-sex unions have been legalized in 17 states plus the District of Columbia. The debate over same-sex marriage is playing out in a series of court challenges.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act that barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. The ruling has been cited by federal judges in striking down state bans on same-sex marriage or restricting its recognition.

On Thursday, a federal judge in Virginia struck down that state’s ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional, saying it denied gay couples a fundamental freedom to marry.

Reporting By Kevin Murphy and Carey Gillham in Kansas City; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Jonathan Oatis