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Proposal to shield businesses who decline to work on same-sex couples goes to Missouri House

State Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

A Senate-sponsored constitutional amendment that would shield businesses in the wedding industry from legal repercussions if they denied their services to same-sex couples is headed to the House. The amendment passed 23-7.

Earlier this week, Missouri Democratic senators orchestrated a historically unprecedented filibuster that lasted for nearly 40 hours in an attempt to stop it.

Senate Joint Resolution 39 would provide legal protections for businesses that refuse to provide services for same-sex weddings and ensuing celebrations. The sponsor of the resolution, Republican Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, says this bill shields a business owner's right to act within his or her individual conscience.

"The state cannot penalize pastors, churches, religious institutions because of their views regarding marriage between two persons of the same sex," said Sen. Onder. "Then, [SJR 39] carves out this very narrow exception of [businesses] participating in the wedding industry with goods of creative and artistic expression ... no one should be commandeered into taking an action that would compromise his or her sincerely held religious beliefs."

Opponents said the legislation would allow for blatant discrimination of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

"If you're going to restrict it to churches or clergy, that would be one thing..." said Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City. "But when you allow folks to refuse service to anyone based on their sexual orientation or sexual preference, that would be discrimination."

Speaking in opposition to the bill, Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, indicated that the major rift between Republicans and Democrats on this issue could be contributed, at least in part, to a generational gap. In addition, Holsman cited religious reasons for opposing the legislation.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City

"My faith would suggest that love shouldn't be restricted," said Holsman.

Holsman said the major problem with Onder's legislation is that it allows for discrimination by both religious and commercial transactions. The Senate Democrats suggested they would have supported a compromise if the bill only allowed for the legal protection of religious organizations refusing to provide wedding-related services for same-sex couples.

"[SJR 39] will legally allow for bakers and florists to hang signs on their windows and signs on their doors that say, 'No gays allowed,'" said Holsman.

Because it is a joint resolution that would amend the state constitution, if the House passes SJR 39, it will be put on the ballot. Republicans are confident Missourians will pass the amendment with overwhelming support. Democrats aren't so sure.

"I think that if the people of Missouri are educated as to what this bill actually does, then no, I don't believe that this will pass," said Holsman. "I don't believe this is constitutional, and it may not make it to the ballot because of that."

Filibuster and PQ

The nine Democrats in the Senate carried the body through nearly 40 hours of filibustering this week, which started Monday afternoon and ended Wednesday morning.

As St. Louis Public Radio's Marshall Griffin reported, the filibuster was cut short when Republicans employed a rarely used parliamentary procedure and called for the previous question. PQs are generally considered a last resort to regain control of Senate proceedings, or as Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, told SLPR's Jason Rosenbaum last year, "It's the adult version of telling people to shut up."

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said he didn't regret his use of the PQ on Wednesday morning. When asked if he was wary of the tone on the floor moving forward, he indicated that next week would be business as usual.

"I try to follow the rules to the best of my ability," said Richard.

Three Republican senators did not support the PQ: Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, and Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City. Schaaf was the only Republican to vote in opposition to SJR 39 itself. 

No one was quite sure what the use of the PQ would mean for the rest of the year in the Senate. Last year, a PQ used a few days before the end of session in support of right-to-work legislation (which was later vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon) signaled a breakdown of state government.

On Thursday, the Senate was called into session around 11 a.m. After the prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, the journal from Monday's proceedings was read in full, which took about 30 minutes. Usually, the reading of the journal minutes would be waived and the next order of business would promptly begin.

Once the reading of the journal was competed, Senate Minority Floor Leader Joseph Keaveny took his first chance to offer an amendment for the journal, something that rarely happens. It was a move that signified a long day ahead.

Many at the Capitol were afraid that, with a session not even at a half-way point, very little will be accomplished.

And that fear showed signs of becoming reality Thursday morning, when Keaveny proposed an amendment to the official record that would add requests by Onder during the filibuster to use the Highway Patrol to find a couple of Democratic senators and bring them to the chamber.

Although Onder's comments were heard by others, most Republicans were against Keaveny's amendment. That infuriated Sen. Dixon.

"When we get to a vote on this, this will be a test of character," said Dixon. "A test that will put the office that we serve above this body, a test that will show if we are more dedicated to the truth than we are to the party."

After slamming his fist on his desk and raising his voice, Dixon continued:

"I am disgusted at the slope and speed with which this place is disintegrating. ... When one member is disrespected, when any member has their rights disregarded in such a dastardly way, then every senator loses. And not only that, our constituents are disrespected. The people are disrespected. And we do not deserve the title of senator, if that's what we are, if that's what we're going to do. There's another work for it, it's called: tyranny."

Throughout the day, Keaveny proposed 10 amendments to the journal. All of them failed to pass.

The senator who had the floor when the previous question was called was Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City. When the Senate resumed, a Republican senator was recognized.

Chappelle-Nadal responded later, “You took my voice away, and now you’re going to hear it...I'm being loud and clear. I'm not playing anymore."

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