(Originally published April 27, 2016 in The Missouri Times.)
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – After a 41-hour long filibuster by Senate Democrats, a four-and-a-half hour hearing in the House Emerging Issues Committee, and weeks of deliberation by the representatives on that committee, SJR 39 failed to pass through the committee on a bipartisan vote of 6-6.
The controversial and hotly debated bill would have allowed those with sincere religious convictions to deny wedding services to same-sex couples. While supporters believed the bill would protect religious beliefs, others called it an act of discrimination against the LGBT community.
Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankford, was the deciding vote. With the three Democrats all in firm opposition and Reps. Anne Zerr, R-St. Charles, and Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, also vocally opposing the measure, Hansen was the wild card. When he gave his final remarks on the bill, he did so with tears in his eyes, discussing how he sought counsel with both his wife and minister on the bill.
Hansen said that due to his religious convictions, he felt he could not “play God” and judge others for what they are.
“You’ve got to look in your heart on how you view this bill,” he said in a shaky voice. “They call it religious freedom… I feel that I’m free in this country to worship the way I want, and I don’t need a law to tell me how to worship. I don’t need a law passed to make it legal to be a Christian.”
Hansen also mentioned his own family members that were gay and that he loved them.
St. Louis Democrat and Rep. Mike Colona, the only openly gay legislator in the General Assembly, spoke about his experience coming out to his mother and how he believed this bill had the potential to change that discourse for the worse. He said passage of the resolution would tell LGBT people that they are a “second-class citizen.”
“Ask yourself, in this day in age, we’ve all had friends family members, brothers, sisters, children, even parents all come out, and if my mother was still around and we want to rent the Applebee’s for the wedding reception… When they say ‘We don’t serve your kind here,’ what message does that send to our friends? Our kids?” he said.
Rep. Gary Cross, R-Lee’s Summit, spoke in favor of the bill, crediting its author, Sen. Bob Onder, and saying that he would make a hard choice by voting ‘yes’ to represent the people who had elected him.
“I was elected to come down here and make decisions,” he said. “What kind of person am I if I just walk out of here on the path of least resistance? I want to be the representative who stood for something.”
Cross also mentioned that if a business owner wanted to turn away business, that was his prerogative, a stance that irked Rep. Sharon Pace, D-St. Louis, to say the least. The African-American representative likened the bill to the same kind of discrimination that occurred against people of color who were forced to use separate bathrooms and drinking fountains and were not permitted into certain theaters and restaurants.
“We were abused. This bill is nothing less,” she said. “We’re separating each other. I’m appalled to see when people can sit up here and separate.”
In a statement after the vote, Rowden, who voted against the bill, remarked on his time as a man of religious conviction and determination, but that he had fundamental disagreements with the bill.
“I have spent most of my adult life in ministry; first as a full time Christian recording artist and second as the Worship Pastor at my church in Columbia,” Rowden said. “I disagreed with the bill as written and voted no. I did not believe SJR 39 was the right way to move our state forward at a time when the people of Missouri are looking for leadership on how to fix our roads, grow our economy, and keep our families safe.”
Committee Chair Elijah Haahr had the last word. His own voice cracked along with Hansen’s.
“We’ve dealt with a lot of hard issues this year, and this one’s the hardest,” he said, and then he called the roll.
Yes, yes, no, yes, no, no, yes, yes, yes, no, no, and no.
Six to six.
Haahr announced that the motion to pass had failed and adjourned the hearing.
Even after the vote, dry eyes turned teary from members on both sides of the issue. LGBT advocates who had fought against the legislation embraced and cried, and even representatives who had voted yes, like Jack Bondon and Ron Hicks, teared up.
Hicks’ own vote had come out as a whisper. He had been a solid yes vote from the beginning, but toed the line after receiving hundreds of texts, phone calls and emails urging him one way or the other.
“I’ve never cried in this building before,” he said. “At least not over something like this, not over legislation. This isn’t just legislation though. I look out in the crowd and I see people in tears, and I hear the stories of my colleagues and good friends… I took my vote, but on the same note I knew there were consequences to it.
“I’m glad this bill is done and over with.”
One person understandably less pleased that the bill has died was its author. Onder released a statement expressing his frustration that the measure failed.
“I am deeply disappointed that Missourians will not have the opportunity to vote on protecting religious freedom,” Onder said. “Seven weeks ago, the Missouri Senate stood strong through the longest filibuster in state history and voted 23-7 to advance SJR 39. Today, House members caved to pressure from special interests and killed the religious freedom amendment. It is wrong that Missouri voters will be denied a voice in the decision-making process.”
Others in conservative circles echoed that concern.
“We recognize that this is an emotionally charged and personal issue for members of the Legislature, but they have a responsibility to rise above the rhetoric,” said Ryan Johnson, president of the Missouri Alliance for Freedom. “It is unfortunate that Republican representatives who typically campaign as conservatives refused to govern that way in today’s House Emerging Issues Committee. Their votes to defeat religious liberty in spite of its overwhelming support by Missourians are a slap in the face to Missouri voters. Hopefully voters will remember.”
Other conservatives were more conciliatory, especially those in the House. Haahr thanked the members of his committee for fully vetting the bill and deliberating it under an immense amount of pressure and stress, and Speaker Todd Richardson also commended the committee for their due diligence.
“Our goal was to respect the legislative process by allowing SJR 39 to be carefully deliberated by our members,” Richardson said. “While I am disappointed by today’s outcome, I understand this is a very difficult issue and I remain committed to fighting for the religious freedoms of all Missourians.”
Rep. Paul Curtman, the House handler for the bill, commended the two and said their “statesmanship was unprecedented” and that he was grateful for their efforts.
On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Jeremy LaFaver also gave Haahr credit for his handling of the bill, but also said it signaled a shift in the Capitol about which chamber had the true upper hand in terms of more responsible policy making.
“For the first time… I think we showed that the House is capable of being the adults in the building,” he said. “I think it will be interesting to see how this paradigm plays out in coming legislative sessions… with the Senate sort of devolving into what they’ve become and the House being the governing body of the state.”
LaFaver had a host of amendments to tack onto the bill, and it was widely thought the resolution would pass with amendments added. However, he did not offer them in the end, citing his concerns they would not necessarily pass legal mettle, and that when others were giving such powerful testimony that it was best “to get out of the way.”
The House and Senate minority leaders, Rep. Jacob Hummel and Sen. Joe Keaveny, also expressed their happiness with the bill’s failure.
“Protection of one’s religious beliefs is a worthy discussion, but this bill was written with malice targeting one group,” Keaveny said. “I am truly thankful that cooler heads prevailed among the supermajority.”
“The House Emerging Issues Committee is to be commended for declining to advance Senate Joint Resolution 39. I know this was difficult decision for many committee members and that pressure was intense from all sides,” Hummel noted. “The ultimate issue here is whether our state constitution protects all Missourians or grants special rights to some to detriment of others. In the years to come, I am confident today’s action will be remembered as being on the right side of history.”