House gives preliminary OK to bill that supporters say preserves religious freedom, but opponents say allows discrimination

? The Kansas House on Wednesday advanced legislation that would allow a religious defense to discriminate against gays.

Two Lawrence representatives attacked the bill, called the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, as an attempt to destroy a city of Lawrence anti-discrimination ordinance that includes sexual orientation.

In an impassioned speech, state Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said, “I am very proud of my Lawrence community, and I’m very proud of the ordinance that we passed.” Ballard added, “Discrimination is an injustice. It is an injustice to everyone.”

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said, “I don’t believe it is ever right to discriminate against someone because of their sexual orientation.”

But State Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, defended his bill, saying it was meant to make sure government could not infringe on an individual’s religious beliefs.

“Free exercise of religion is at the core of who we are as a people,” Kinzer said.

Davis asked Kinzer if under Kinzer’s bill an apartment owner could cite his religious beliefs to fight a complaint if he refused to rent to a same-sex couple.

“That is generally correct,” Kinzer said.

Davis said that was unfair to the city of Lawrence, which is the only city in Kansas that has an anti-discrimination ordinance designed to protect people based on sexual orientation.

State Rep. Charlie Roth, R-Salina, said that Kinzer’s legislation was “homophobic” and that it will hurt Kansas’ image. “It sends the message that Kansas is not welcoming. Kansas will become known as the land of the pure as defined by the few,” Roth said.

But Kinzer said local units of government should not be allowed to engage in religious discrimination against its citizens.

The bill was approved 89-27. Ballard, Davis and state Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, voted against it. State Reps. Anthony Brown, R-Eudora, and TerriLois Gregory, R-Baldwin City, voted for it.

The bill would prohibit state and local governments from substantially burdening a person’s religious beliefs unless the government can prove that the burden is advancing a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive way of advancing that interest.

The measure is supported by Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration, the Kansas Catholic Conference and Concerned Women for America of Kansas. It was opposed by Lawrence officials, the Kansas Equality Coalition and the state chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Right before advancing the Kansas Preservation of Freedom Act, the House gave preliminary approval to putting a chapel for prayer and meditation in the Statehouse.

Both proposals will require a final vote before going to the Senate. Those votes will probably be taken Thursday.