The GOP-led Missouri Senate has given initial approval to a proposal to amend the Missouri Constitution to provide further religious protections for those objecting to gay marriage.
The 23-9 vote Wednesday came after Republicans broke a more than 30-hour Democratic filibuster.
The measure would prohibit government penalties against business owners and individuals who cite a "sincere religious belief" while declining to provide services involving "expressional or artistic creation" for same-sex weddings.
It also would shield clergy and worship places that decline to participate in such weddings.
The measure needs a second vote of approval to move to the House.
The Missouri proposal, which could go before voters later this year, highlights the tension between civil rights and religious liberties that still exist in many parts of the nation following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that legalized same-sex marriages in all states.
Though it doesn't list specific protected businesses, the measure comes after bakers and florists have faced legal challenges in other states for declining to provide services for same-sex weddings.
"No one should be compelled to make a work with their own hands that's offensive to their beliefs," Republican Sen. Bob Onder said.
His proposal also would shield clergy, places of worship and other religious organizations from being penalized for not participating in marriages involving same-sex partners.
Democrats said they had no problem with protecting pastors from being compelled to perform same-sex marriages but were concerned about the exemptions for some businesses. Some lawmakers invoked images of an era when businesses refused to serve people because of the color of their skin.
"You call it conscious protection; I call it blatant discrimination," said Democratic Sen. Jill Schupp.
Filibusters in Missouri can be halted by a majority vote, but that procedure is used sparingly, and Republican leaders said they preferred to simply wear down the opponents. Missouri's session runs through mid-May. That leaves plenty of time for the proposal, if passed by the Senate, to also move through the Republican-controlled House. It then would be submitted to statewide voters in either the August primary or November general election.
Republican lawmakers in various states have pushed religious protection measures following the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage.
- Florida lawmakers last week sent Republican Gov. Rick Scott a bill to specify that churches can't be forced to marry same-sex couples.
- The West Virginia House has approved a measure that would let people cite religious objections to state actions in certain court proceedings.
- The Georgia Senate has approved a measure barring government penalties against individuals or organizations that decline to provide services to couples based on a religious belief about marriage.
Onder said the Missouri measure is more narrowly crafted than some of those that have faced a backlash — for example, a proposal in Indiana that was criticized by businesses.
Missouri's largest statewide business organizations have taken no position on the measure, though the St. Louis Regional Chamber has raised concerns. Some particular businesses also oppose it. Among the largest of those is the St. Louis-based agricultural firm Monsanto, which called on other businesses to join it "in speaking out against discrimination here in our home state."
The filibuster marked the longest continuous debate in recent Missouri history. Four Senate Democrats — including current U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. — led a 38-hour filibuster spread over five legislative days against an abortion bill in 1999. That bill ultimately passed the Senate.
Republican Senate leaders said they are committed to passing the religious-protection measure. Republican House Speaker Todd Richardson said lawmakers feel an urgency to act this election year; otherwise, the amendment might have to wait until the 2018 ballot.
"Religious liberty is important, and we've got a lot of people who are talking about it," Richardson said.
Missouri is one of more than 20 states with religious objection laws already in place. Missouri law bans state and local government agencies from substantially limiting a person's right to follow their religious beliefs unless there is a compelling reason to do so.
In 2004, a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman was approved by 70 percent of Missouri voters. But that amendment was essentially overturned by last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
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