JEFFERSON CITY — The failure of Arizona's "religious freedom" bill captured national attention and scorn this week, but now Missouri might be considering its own version of the bill.
A Republican senator filed legislation Monday that would protect businesses exercising the right to refuse service based on religious beliefs.
SB 916, sponsored by Sen. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, follows a contentious trend in states such as Kansas and Arizona. Opposition is rampant, arguing that the bill would open the way for discrimination against gay and lesbian residents.
Wallingford said he was doing what he thought was best for Missouri.
"The reason I filed this bill is because I think there are many who are concerned about the government's ability to burden our religious rights," Wallingford said in an email.
The bill expressly prohibits the government from curbing the exercise of "sincere religious beliefs" without compelling government interest.
To address concerns about how far a "sincere religious belief" could stretch, Wallingford contends that it would be the courts' job to decide in cases what falls under the law, as well as what constitutes a compelling government interest.
Wallingford argues that religious freedom should apply in all cases: suits including only private parties and those cases where government is a party.
"With an issue like religious freedom, it is imperative to ensure that all have access to the same rights; providing it only to a specified portion of the population just does not make sense," Wallingford said in an email.
AJ Bockelman, executive director of PROMO, points out that by looking at the context of the bill, he reads it as effectively taking away all public accommodation.
"(It is an) attempt to hold religious liberties to a higher standard and trump all other protected categories," Bockelman said.
PROMO is an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. Bockelman said he sees religious conservatives trying to whip up controversy, that these bills are a response to only a handful of cases where a local baker or photographer doesn't want to recognize a ceremony for a same-sex couple.
Wallingford was a supporter of the Nondiscrimination Act, a Missouri bill that made it out of the Senate last year, but not through the House. The legislation would have barred employers from firing employees based on sexual orientation.
Currently, Missouri employment law forbids discriminating against someone for race, religion, sex, disability and age, but not for sexual orientation.
Wallingford doesn't see his bill as at odds with bills such as the Nondiscrimination Act or Rep. Stephen Webber's Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity Discrimination bill in the House.
"This bill has absolutely nothing to do with discrimination," Wallingford said in an email. "Indeed, it specifically states that it will not 'establish a defense to civil action or criminal prosecution based on a federal, state or local civil rights law involving discrimination.'"
Webber, D-Columbia, sponsored HB 1858, which would prohibit discrimination in the workplace, along with public accommodations.
"You can have whatever personal beliefs you want, you can do whatever in church that you want, but when you go to the stream of commerce, when you make something available to the public, then you cannot use religion as a basis of discrimination," Webber said.
Webber said that in his opinion, the two pieces of legislation are mutually exclusive.
"There's not room for both of these bills," Webber said. "My bill says you can't discriminate; his bill says you can. In fact, it empowers people to discriminate."
Webber also points out what is not apparent in the bill: other areas people could discriminate against based on religious beliefs. He said because the bill is not explicit, it suggests that it would not only apply to sexual orientation, but also to race and gender. Webber points to America's recent history with discrimination.
"Look at discrimination throughout history, whether that's discrimination against women, against blacks, against gays — there's always been some folks who found some religious reason for it," Webber said.
Wallingford's bill has not yet been referred to committee.
Webber also said he doesn't know what footing a bill like Wallingford's would find in the two houses, but he admits he didn't expect Kansas and Arizona's versions to gain so much momentum.
Arizona's version made the arduous journey through the assembly again this year just to once again be vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer on Wednesday.