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Gay rights advocates rally at Kansas Statehouse

TOPEKA, Kan. — Nearly 200 people rallied for gay rights Tuesday at the Kansas Statehouse as backers of “religious freedom” legislation worked to counter perceptions that their measure would encourage widespread discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The crowd cheered speakers, held signs and flags, and huddled under blankets in the chill of a clear but below-freezing afternoon to protest a bill providing legal protections to individuals, groups and businesses that refuse goods and services to gay couples for religious reasons. Supporters have said it focuses on protecting churches, florists, bakers and photographers from being punished for avoiding involvement in same-sex weddings, but critics say the bill is much broader.

The House approved the measure earlier this month, but Senate leaders quickly declared it dead after businesses and business groups protested and the Republican-dominated Legislature received national criticism. But the Senate Judiciary Committee also plans to have hearings next week on religious liberties issues, and the chamber’s GOP leaders concede that a new, narrower proposal could emerge.

“I don’t want people to be discriminated against,” said Lori Strecker, a Lawrence nurse who shared a blanket at the rally with her 15-year-old son, Jai. “It’s not OK.”

The House-passed bill prohibits government fines and anti-discrimination lawsuits when people, groups or businesses — citing “sincerely held” religious beliefs — refuse to provide goods, services, accommodations or employment benefits related to marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships or celebrations related to them. It also protects religiously affiliated adoption agencies from being punished for refusing to place children with gay couples.

The Kansas Catholic Conference, the conservative Kansas Family Policy Council and some GOP legislators have said they want a law protecting gay-marriage opponents’ religious liberties in place before the federal courts invalidate the state constitution’s gay-marriage ban. They’ve repeatedly compared the House-passed measure to policies enacted in other states in which legislators approved same-sex marriage.

“There’s a concerted effort by people on the other side to discredit the very concept of religious freedom, and they want to do that by linking it to bigotry,” said Michael Schuttloffel, the Catholic Conference’s executive director.

Similar proposals have surfaced in other states, with Arizona approving a measure. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer returned Tuesday to her state from a governor’s conference facing pressure from the state’s business community and its two U.S. senators to veto it.

Robert Noland, the Kansas Family Policy Council’s executive director, said there’s broad support among the state’s residents for preventing people from being punished for refusing to be involved with gay weddings, citing a recent survey by his group of 400 registered voters. Also, in June 2012, at least several thousand people participated in a Statehouse “religious freedom” rally sponsored by the state’s Catholic bishops, protesting a federal mandate on health insurance coverage for contraception.

But Noland acknowledged the language in the House-passed bill may need to be “tailored” further.

“We view it as a preservation of rights,” he said. “We still have opportunities for some meaningful religious liberties discussions.”

The rally organizers included Equality Kansas, the state’s leading gay-rights group, and the American Civil Liberties Union. The speakers and crowd also included clergy.

“From my own Christian tradition, Jesus was only critical and condemning of oppressive civil governments of his day and the oppressive actions of some of the religious leaders of his day,” said the Rev. Kent Little, senior pastor at the College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita.

Critics of the bill — including in the business community — zeroed in on a provision extending its protections to individual workers or government employees who for religious reasons refuse to participate in providing a legal service. The provision says a business or agency must find a work-around if it is not “an undue burden.”

College students Nick Karber, of Salina, and Joshua Korte, of McPherson, came to the Statehouse to lobby legislators against it, saying they believe it enables discrimination.

And Natasha Derakhshanian, an information systems administrator from Kansas City, Kan., said, “What’s to stop a firefighter from not putting out a house fire of a same-sex couple?”

Backers of the bill called such examples far-fetched, but Schuttloffel said supporters are open to “doing whatever is necessary to make clear the purpose of the bill.” He said the aim of the bill is “not in any way to discriminate against people just because of sexual orientation.”

“We’re committed to working on the language so that we’ll have a product that, at a minimum, people will know isn’t going to do all the horrible things that have been said,” he added.

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