Our View: Religious Freedom Bill

During the past few weeks we, the Index Editorial Board, have been working to answer your questions about the political process, encouraging you to become informed and getting you excited to vote and be civically engaged in the upcoming presidential election. This week we would like to continue this politically-charged momentum by directing you to a new issue — Senate Joint Resolution 39. We want to inform you about this bill from the Missouri Senate, which Missouri Democrats fought tooth and nail to stop last week, to the point of maintaining a 39-hour filibuster, the longest in Missouri history. If passed, this bill might soon become a ballot measure and essen-
tially will be in the hands of you, the voters.

Supporters of SJR 39, introduced by Sen. Bob Onder, label it as a religious freedom bill and those opposed label it as an anti-LGBT amendment. The basic premise is to prevent the state from taking action or imposing penalties against businesses, religious organizations and individuals who refuse services to or terminate the employment of a person based on a “sincere religious belief” about same-sex marriage. The main situation this bill addresses is the event that a wedding photographer, bakery shop or venue does not want to provide services for a wedding of a gay couple.

This bill is a proposed amendment to the Missouri Constitution, which means it cannot be changed — it would be codified forever.

Our primary concern is, though the bill intends to give some Missourians what they see as religious freedom, it opens the door for discrimination against an already marginalized group, from which they would now have no protection. In section four of the bill, it specifically addresses refusal to participate in a wedding ceremony or provide “expressional or artistic” services. However, we suspect in the event that a merchant or individual chooses to refuse service, this ability to do so could be used as a free pass to harass people simply because of their sexual orientation.

If it becomes legal to refuse services on that basis without consequence, we propose it is not too far of a stretch to expect there could be some heated commentary as well. Essentially, same-sex couples looking to reserve a wedding venue could be treated rudely, or much worse, and the worry is this behavior could be tolerated or even protected by this upcoming legislation.

The fundamental issue is some Missourians don’t support gay marriage, a right recently granted for all people in our state and across the nation, and these individuals and organizations don’t want to participate or facilitate celebrations they do not agree with. But we also consider the fact most people probably would not want someone who fundamentally disagrees with their life choices and beliefs shooting photos of one of the most important days of their lives, either. It seems we find ourselves on the fault line of a quickly forming divide between the LGBT community and mid-American conservatives.

We, the Index Editorial Board implore the Missouri legislature to see a single bill is not enough to protect the religious freedoms of conservative Americans as well as the rights of same-sex couples. Regardless of how we would like to see this problem addressed, the legislation already has been drafted, approved by the Missouri Senate and is on its way through the Missouri House of Representatives. The question is, if this becomes a ballot measure, what will you do? Missouri voters might have the final say. We do not think this legislation is the answer and encourage you to vote no on this amendment if it is on ballots later this year and be- yond, so we can find a better way to move forward with respect for all Missourians.

This staff editorial came from the March 1700 issue of the Index.