Kansas Senate Does An About Face On Anti-Gay ‘Jim Crow’ Law

Anti-Gay 'Jim Crow' Law rejected by KS Senate after passing in House. Kansas State Capitol building.

Anti-Gay ‘Jim Crow’ Law rejected by KS Senate after passing in House. Photo of Kansas State Capitol building from Wikipedia.

In a stunning reversal, the Kansas Senate decided on Friday not to hear a new anti-gay ‘Jim Crow’ law that passed overwhelmingly in the state House earlier in the week. Conservative senators joined forces with liberal advocates to label the proposed anti-gay legislation as discriminatory.

The outrageous House Bill 2453 went far beyond trying to ban same-sex marriage. It specified that no one who claimed a religious objection could be required to:

Provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; provide counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits, related to, or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement.

All the ugly uses of Jim Crow laws would be back in use against gay couples.

Want to sit at the lunch counter with your partner? Sorry, the restaurant owner isn’t comfortable with you, so you can’t. Want to ride the bus? Sorry, the bus driver doesn’t like the sight of you, so walk instead. Want to go to the movies? The theatre owner doesn’t want you sitting next to his heterosexual customers, so too bad.

The bill passed the Kansas House by a vote of 72 to 49 last Wednesday. It was expected to fly through the state Senate because Republicans dominate there, 32-8. But then came the national outcry, especially on the Internet.

The main sponsor of the legislation, Charles Macheers, R-Shawnee, said it was just supposed to keep businesses from having to participate in gay wedding ceremonies. But that’s not the way the law is written. Same-sex marriage is already illegal in Kansas, at least for the moment. As Democratic state Rep. Ponka-We Victors, the first Native American elected to the state House, expressed the issue to MSNBC:

I don’t think you should be able to pinpoint who you want to serve and who you don’t want to serve … I know what it’s like to be on the other side. Are we going to go back to signs on business doors that say ‘We don’t serve this group of citizens?’ It’s ridiculous.

The opposition was stunning in its swiftness.

Of course it’s ridiculous. What’s stunning is the speed with which the state Senate agreed. The president of the Kansas Senate, Susan Wagle, voiced her opposition by saying, “my members don’t condone discrimination.” The chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, Jeff King, refused to hold hearings on the House bill.

The senators were under pressure to vote against the anti-gay Jim Crow law from a number of quarters. Thomas Witt, the director of the non-profit organization Equality Kansas, was amazed at the outcry. He said:

I don’t know what surprised me more, the level of public involvement in this or the speed with which the Senate president basically ended the prospects for the bill.

The always conservative Kansas Chamber of Commerce added its voice. The president, Mike O’Neal, saw the anti-gay legislation as putting business owners in an impossible situation if an employee refused to serve someone. He said businesses are “not interested in getting into these guessing games as to someone’s intent and whether a strongly held religious belief is legitimate or not.”

The blatant anti-gay act would backfire on the religious right.

In a column in The Dish, Andrew Sullivan put it more succinctly. He described the anti-gay Jim Crow law as a set-up for failure for the religious right:

If you were devising a strategy to make the Republicans look like the Bull Connors of our time, you just stumbled across a winner. If you wanted a strategy to define gay couples as victims and fundamentalist Christians as oppressors, you’ve hit the jackpot.

As delighted as liberals are about the current fate of the anti-gay Kansas HB 2453, they’re not all dewey-eyed about the ‘conversion’ of conservatives. The issue of using religion to discriminate against gays and bolster anti-gay causes isn’t going away and is bound to rise in a new form — and soon. In refusing to hear the bill, Sen. King virtually said so:

To me, the bill was not as narrowly tailored as it needed to be. We need razor precision in the language of the bill as to what religious liberties we’re trying to protect and how we protect them in a nondiscriminatory fashion.

But for now, liberal Kansans can take comfort in the fact that they have not yet joined Russia and Uganda in a full-on embrace of discriminatory anti-gay laws. After that warm-and-fuzzy moment, they can show up for the protest to be held on Feb. 25th at the Kansas House of Representatives. That’s in Topeka. Show up. Bring your friends, your partners, and your Internet-compatible devices.