Despite Democrats’ objections, and despite their 39-hour filibuster, the Missouri Senate on Wednesday morning passed a measure its supporters characterize as a religious freedom bill that could change the state’s constitution.
Republicans in the chamber used a procedure to end debate on the legislation and pass Senate Joint Resolution 39, an action that Democrats said broke Senate rules.
If it someday becomes law, Missouri’s Constitution would be amended to include language about the “protection of certain religious organizations and individuals from being penalized by the state because of their sincere religious beliefs or practices concerning marriage between two persons of the same sex.”
Republicans, as a party, have been supporting similar measures in statehouses nationwide on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing marriage for gay and lesbian couples.
Gov. Jay Nixon has spoken out against SR-39, applauding fellow Democratic lawmakers in his state for fighting the bill. But their opinions may not make a difference.
That’s because, just like in Missouri’s Senate, there are well more than double the number of Republicans as Democrats in the legislation’s next stop — the state House of Representatives.
If the legislation passes there as well, Missouri residents would have the final say. A majority of voters must approve it in a statewide vote for the language to be added to the state constitution.
Similar bills have come up in other states where Republicans hold sway, almost always bringing controversy with them. The first such flashpoint was last year in Indiana, where GOP lawmakers overhauled a related measure that became law following an intensive, extensive backlash. And just last month, Georgia’s Senate followed that state’s house of representatives in passing legislation along these lines.
Missouri’s legislation is different than most in that it involves amending the state’s constitution and it has a narrow focus, according to its sponsor.
“We spent a lot of time writing it to avoid the controversies we’ve seen in other states,” Republican Sen. Bob Onder said.
He told his colleagues in the Senate that the bill “protects churches, pastors, religious organizations in a very well-defined class of individuals from being penalized, targeted, persecuted on the basis of their religious beliefs.”
But opponents, like the American Civil Liberties Union and the PROMO advocacy group, don’t see it that way. In a letter to lawmakers last month, they said this “anti-LGBT legislation” — if it becomes part of the constitution — will “only succeed in showing people Missouri is not a welcoming state.”
“This bill is a direct hit on those individuals who decide to love and be in love with the same sex, and that’s not fair,” said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, one of the eight Democratic state senators who tried unsuccessfully to stop the bill from passing in his chamber.