Last week, the Kansas House of Representatives embarrassed itself by easily passing a bill that aimed to make gay people separate and not equal. In the name of protecting the religious sensibilities of private employers, stores, hotels, movie theaters, parks, pools—any public accommodation—the law allowed them to turn away gay couples and could even have applied to gay individuals. It was grotesque. I have been taking seriously the religious objections of nonprofit groups like Little Sisters of the Poor to the contraception mandate in Obamacare (though I think their claims should fall in the end, because the government has an excellent rationale—improving women’s health!—for requiring health insurers to cover birth control). But the Kansas bill was religious objection on crack. As Mark Joseph Stern wrote in Slate:
A catch-all clause allows businesses and bureaucrats to discriminate against gay people so long as this discrimination is somehow “related to, or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement.” (Emphases mine.) In other words, in theory, simply being in a gay relationship with any kind of official status could lose you your job or get you kicked out of a restaurant. And if you sued over this and lost, you’d be stuck with the other side’s attorney’s fees.
I am pleased to report that the Republican-led Kansas Senate decided this would not fly. Senate President Susan Wagle said on Thursday that a majority of the state senators in her party would not vote for the bill. They support “traditional marriage,” Wagle noted, “however, my members also don’t condone discrimination.” Thank you for that line in the sand. It should be obvious, but somehow that was lost on the Kansas House.
Instead of passing, as everyone predicted, the Kansas anti-gay bill will now, in all likelihood, quietly die without hearings or a vote. I give credit to the hue and cry raised by Stern and other critics, and to the rapid pace of progress on gay rights. Even in the remaining pockets of backlash, conservatives can see that there are lengths to which they can no longer safely go. I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote from Adam Liptak’s New York Times piece on the series of federal court decisions striking down state gay-marriage bans: “It is becoming increasingly clear to judges that if they rule against same-sex marriage their grandchildren will regard them as bigots,” Andrew M. Koppelman, a law professor at Northwestern, told Liptak. The legislators in Kansas who stopped short of passing this bill still think it’s OK to oppose same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, though their definition of prejudice differs, the point stands: They don’t want to be seen as bigots, either. That’s how progress begins.