Kansas is in the limelight these days. Put less charitably, it is more like the harsh glare of criticism for the Kansas House bill passed on February 12. By a vote of 72-49 our legislators sought to protect private sector and government employees from lawsuits if they refuse to do business with same-sex couples for religious reasons.
The measure then went to the state’s GOP-controlled Senate, which chose to pursue a more nuanced and measured approach than the House. Thankfully, Susan Wagle, a conservative Republican who is president of the Kanas Senate, raised opposition to the practical implications of the bill and said, ”my members don’t condone discrimination.” Her principled leadership effectively shut down the bill.
Yet, I am concerned about what motivated the bill in the first place. Is the rapid social change on same-sex marriage really that threatening to persons of good will? Should we not be celebrating covenantal love that displaces promiscuity? Even if one does not understand the origin of homosexuality, should civil rights not be extended to all persons equally? These are hard questions, and churches must contribute ethical sensitivity to the public discourse. Doing justice and loving mercy should guide our reflection and our action.
As a Baptist, I value religious liberty greatly. Our Baptist forebears contributed to the centrality of the First Amendment and its provision for freedom of religious expression. I simply do not think that religious liberty should be a bludgeon of bigotry. We expect our governing bodies to protect human rights, and in this case, a vulnerable minority should be able to lay claim to basic dignity in accessing services. Not too many years ago, laws allowed merchants to turn away black people, and the Jim Crow mentality lingered. Kansas has a storied history in the struggle for abolition; I would love to see it reclaim such prophetic posture rather than be reactionary out of fear.
Last year, the legislature passed the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, which protects residents from government burdens that may force them to break their religious beliefs. The current bill went further and seemed to target same-sex couples. Yet, “the public outcry by midweek had reached such a volume that the Senate just wasn’t going to be able to take it up,” said Thomas Witt, the executive director of Equality Kansas, a nonprofit group that fights discrimination and strongly opposed the bill. This is encouraging.
The furor has quieted in Kansas, but other states are considering similar measures. I trust that sustained conversation, a good dose of empathy, and a concern for evenhandedness will achieve constructive common ground.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.