Kansas Statehouse roiled by ‘religious freedom’ issue
TOPEKA — A floral shop owner from Washington state told a Kansas House committee Wednesday she is being sued for refusing to provide flowers at a same-sex wedding, and she urged the state to pass a "religious freedom" bill that would protect the rights of business owners like her.
"The government is trying to force me to create expression that violates my religious beliefs," said Barronnelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene's Flowers in Richland, Wash., about 200 miles southeast of Seattle.
Stutzman spoke during what was billed as an "informational briefing" on religious freedom, which a leading gay rights activist blasted as being one-sided and unfair.
"When they call it an informational briefing, they need to hear from all sides, not just trot out one person to stand there and attack the LGBT community," said Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, a statewide gay rights advocacy group.
Stutzman is currently being sued by the Washington Attorney General's Office for violating the state's consumer protection and anti-discrimination laws. Her case, and others like it, have become touchstones for the debate over gay rights and same-sex marriage in the United States, including in the Kansas Legislature.
In 2014, the Kansas House passed a broad "religious freedom" bill that would have protected any individual or business from being required to recognize, accommodate or take part in a same-sex marriage if doing so would violate their deeply held religious beliefs.
That bill immediately ran into stiff resistance from civil rights and business groups alike, and the Kansas Senate refused to consider it.
This year, there are two competing bills in the Legislature: one that would protect the rights of student groups on college and university campuses to discriminate on the basis of religious beliefs; and another that would extend protection to gays and lesbians under the state's nondiscrimination laws.
Stutzman told lawmakers that protecting the religious beliefs of people like her should be paramount.
"In a free country, where we all have different ideas, we should respect one another to have those ideas," she said. "This is what makes us a great nation, to be able to work and live according to our convictions and beliefs. Yet I have been told that I must think and act according to the government's opinions, or the government will punish me if I do not go along with their agenda."
Stutzman appeared at the committee on the same day several hundred people from various religious and conservative organizations converged on the statehouse calling for passage of religious freedom legislation.
And she received a sympathetic ear from conservatives on the committee, including Rep. Dick Jones, R-Topeka.
"The national psyche has already flipped over to the fact that you can talk about all the wonderful things of being completely liberal and accepting people's choice in terms of sexual gratification," Jones said. "But to criticize anything like that is almost the kiss of death, and you can see it pretty much in the Legislature, where very few people will stand up and say you do have a right to make decisions on whom, because of your religious beliefs, you'll support or not support."
But Witt, of Equality Kansas, said after the hearing that he could have responded to Jones' remarks, if anyone else had been allowed to testify.
"Rep. Jones is clearly misinformed, and had this not been a one-sided presentation, we would have found an opportunity to set him straight on his understanding of what sexual orientation actually means," he said.