Lawrence ordinance at center of fight over Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act

? A legislative committee on Monday approved a bill that supporters said would protect religious freedom, but opponents said the measure could be used to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

“This is nothing more than legislative gay-bashing,” said Thomas Witt, president of the Kansas Equality Commission, after the House Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 2260, which is called the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.

During discussion on the bill, one of its main proponents, Rep. Jan Pauls, D-Hutchinson, referred to the city of Lawrence’s anti-discrimination ordinance, which includes protections based on sexual orientation.

She said that ordinance could violate a business person’s religious beliefs if that person didn’t want to hire someone who was gay, transgender or cross-dressing. She used the example of a day care business.

“The situation in Lawrence, it then trumps the freedom of religion in our Constitution,” she said. “You cannot use your religion as a defense under that existing ordinance,” she said.

But opponents said the bill, if enacted, would open the door to discrimination.

“This isn’t about freedom of religion. This is about freedom to discriminate against people who you don’t agree with,” said Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka.

Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, however, said the measure was needed especially now because of President Barack Obama’s decision to require birth control coverage, which has been protested by some Catholic officials.

But Kuether said that was a smokescreen, noting the bill was first introduced last year right after the city of Manhattan approved an anti-discrimination ordinance covering sexual orientation, and hearings on the bill last year dealt with same-sex marriage.

The measure would prohibit government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless it furthered a compelling interest and was done in the least restrictive way possible. Discrimination would not be allowed against individuals covered by the Kansas Act Against Discrimination. This includes discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, disability, national origin or ancestry.

Lawrence officials testified against the bill, saying the local ordinance extended beyond the protections of the state law. But Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration weighed in in favor of it.

Judiciary Chairman Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, said there was nothing in the bill that would invalidate a local ordinance.

“There is not a single local ordinance on the books right now that will come off based on passing this,” Kinzer said.

The measure, approved in committee on a voice vote, now goes to the full House for consideration. Kinzer said he did not know if or when the bill would be debated.