Religious freedom restoration act rejected by Kansas lawmakers

AP, Feb. 21, 2003
By JOHN HANNA, Associated Press Writer

TOPEKA – A proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act failed Thursday to win House approval amid doubts it was necessary and worries it would stick state and local agencies with big legal bills.

The measure would make it easier for individuals and groups to prevail in court when they challenge state or local actions restricting religious activities. After a successful challenge, a group or individual would have their legal expenses covered.

The House vote was 61-59, but supporters needed to muster 63, a majority in the 125-member chamber. The bill will die unless House members reconsider it Friday, although it could resurface as an amendment to other bills later in the session.

‘‘I didn’t know that my religious freedoms needed to be restored,’’ said Rep. Nile Dillmore, D-Wichita, who voted against the measure.

Patterned after a federal law struck down six years ago, the bill says state and local governments ‘‘shall not substantially burden a person’s or group’s exercise of religion’’ – even with a law or rule unrelated to religion. Anyone aggrieved by a government action could challenge it in court.

Exceptions would be allowed only for jails, prisons or other detention facilities or when the government could show the action was the least restrictive means of serving a ‘‘compelling government interest.’’

The provision on legal fees worried some House members, who saw it as potentially expensive.

‘‘I don’t care to pay public money to lawyers for witches or any other religion,’’ said Rep. Ward Loyd, R-Garden City, an opponent.

Twelve states, including Florida, Illinois, Oklahoma and Texas, have adopted such statutes since the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the federal law in 1997, ruling that it unconstitutionally usurped the power of federal courts and the states.

As an example of how such an act might come into play, Florida’s motor vehicles department faces a lawsuit because it refused to issue an identification card to a Muslim woman because she wouldn’t lift her veil for a photo. Some Muslims believe only a woman’s husband and family should see her face.

In Kansas, the House approved a similar religious freedom bill last year, 89-34, but the Senate never considered it.

‘‘The arguments were the same this year as last year,’’ said Rep. Dan Williams, R-Olathe, the bill’s most vocal supporter.

He said of the bill’s failure to pass, ‘‘It makes no sense.’’

But Rep. Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, a ‘‘no’’ vote this year after supporting last year’s measure, said last year’s measure applied only to individuals. The inclusion of undefined groups bothered him, he said.

And others who voted ‘‘yes’’ last year but ‘‘no’’ Thursday said the debate this year was more thorough.

‘‘I think people looked a little harder this year for a reason or justification and never really saw what the problem was,’’ said Majority Leader Clay Aurand, R-Courtland.

Religious freedoms bill is HB 2040.

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