Business outcry doesn't stop Missouri religious-objections
JEFFERSON CITY (AP) — Despite mounting opposition from top business groups to religious objection bills that have been proposed in several conservative states in the past year, some Missouri Republican legislators say they will press on with their efforts to protect businesses that deny services for same-sex weddings, based on a religious belief.
Days after Georgia's Republican governor, Nathan Deal, vetoed a religious objections bill in his state, those behind Missouri legislation that would add a religious protection component to the state constitution say concerns about the potential economic fallout are overblown and they think people's religious rights are more important.
"These predictions of economic Armageddon are nonsense," said sponsor Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis.
Since passing the Senate on March 10 after a failed 37-hour filibuster by Democrats who argued the measure would permit discrimination, business groups such as the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and major employers in the state including agricultural giant Monsanto and MasterCard have slammed the legislation and cautioned that Missouri could face similar financial consequences as other states with newly passed religious-objections laws.
The measure awaits a hearing in the House, where some Republicans are taking a more cautious approach, including GOP House Speaker Todd Richardson, who cited new concerns about how it might impact business.
Indiana's Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed a watered-down version of a religious-objections bill following an outpouring of business opposition last year. Still, Visit Indy, a public-private Indianapolis tourism booster group, reported that a dozen conventions cited the religious objections law as part of the reason they located elsewhere, at a loss of at least $60 million in hotel profits, tax revenues and other economic benefits.
Deal vetoed the Georgia bill after more than 500 companies joined a coalition against it headed by Coca-Cola. The Walt Disney Co. and Marvel Studios threatened to leave the state, and the NFL suggested Atlanta could lose bids for upcoming Super Bowls.
Onder argues that his proposal is narrower than legislation passed in those states. It's aimed at barring the government from punishing businesses that cite religious objections while declining to provide goods or services of "expressional or artistic creation" for same-sex weddings.
Critics say religious objections laws amount to an invitation to discriminate against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and that Missouri's proposed amendment would have more far-reaching consequences than its backers describe. If passed by the Legislature, it would bypass Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and head to voters, who could pass it with a simple majority vote this year.
Onder also said Indiana's overall economy still is doing well, and that Houston hasn't suffered economically after voters defeated a broad equal-rights ordinance last year that would have extended protections in employment, housing and public spaces on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender identity and other categories. The mayor and other proponents had said its defeat could have led to economic boycotts or hurt plans to host the Super Bowl in 2017, but the NFL has said the vote won't affect Super Bowl plans.
Rep. Paul Curtman, the House handler of the Missouri bill, also said Thursday that economic concerns should take a backseat to religious freedom.
"The Bill of Rights is more important than any business deal," Curtman said. "I don't think you should ever sacrifice the First Amendment for the sake of a business prospect that somebody might have."
House leaders have taken a more cautious approach in recent days.
Richardson, who expressed concern that people's religious freedom was in jeopardy during his speech to open the legislative session, said Thursday that he expects a "long and full review" in the House. He called criticism of the legislation from businesses "concerning, as it's been in other states with this issue."
"The notion of religious freedom is very important. It's something that we always have to be mindful of," Richardson said. "We also have a very rich tradition in this state of not tolerating discrimination."
Rep. Anne Zerr, a St. Charles Republican who serves on the committee set to review the measure, said as a commerce committee chairwoman she's obligated to consider any potential impact the measure could have on the economy.
"Would this really be a detriment to the businesses in our state?" Zerr said, adding that the House "may need to amend this if there are unintended consequences."
Emerging Issues Committee chairman Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, said he plans to hold a hearing on the legislation in the next several weeks.