Updated at 10:30 p.m. Sept. 10 to reflect new comments from legislators
Washington Senate Republicans are looking at a tweaked version of a bill that might allow businesses to refuse service to customers on the basis of religious beliefs.
The new bill appears to be prompted by the legal cases of a Richland florist who refused to serve a gay couple getting married and of two Olympia pharmacists who refused to stock "morning-after" birth control pills, said Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle and ranking minority member of the Senate Law & Justice Committee.
In the Richland flower shop case, the attorney general's office has filed charges against Arlene Flowers, alleging the state's first major violation of a 2012 law that legalized gay marriage.
The Law & Justice Committee is scheduled to discuss some version of a bill on religious freedom at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Law and Justice Center in Burien. In comments after this story first appeared, the committee's chairman, Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, took issue with Kline's description of the bill that will be discussed in committee. He said the bill will deal with other religious issues.
The religious freedom bill to be discussed Wednesday will not address allowing businesses refuse service to customers because of their religious beliefs, said Padden. Instead, the Senate Law & Justice Committee will discuss a proposed bill — the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" — to allow some religious functions on public property, said committee chairman Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley. Padden and Sen. Steve O'Ban, R-Pierce County, are writing the bill.
A draft version of the proposal on businesses is similar to a bill introduced at the end of the Legislature's regular 2013 session by Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick. Brown's bill went nowhere because it was introduced three days prior to the regular session ending. Her bill was prompted by the Richland flower shop case. The difference in the language of the new draft, which has no sponsor listed, and Brown's bill is that her legislation would allow people to refuse service to others because of religious beliefs, philosophical beliefs or matters of conscience — while the new bill mentions only religious beliefs. The new bill would forbid government and private lawsuits unless the state can provide "compelling government justification" for legal action.
Kline said a business and a customer should have equal constitutional rights, and the proposed bill would tip that balance in favor of the provider's religion.
Kline wrote in an email, "Under this bill, rather than balance the competing constitutionally protected rights of the parties, as courts do now, we are simply to favor the one that is claimed to have a religious basis. Since the religious dictates by which a person lives are not subject to court judgment as 'right' or 'wrong,' and need not have their origin in any existing religion, they are effectively whatever one says they are, however clearly they may violate the equally constitutionally based rights of others. ... Looks to me that this is designed to curtail state action, broadly defined, whenever it would hamper any person’s religious activity, however idiosyncratic."
Kline said a merchant or doctor belonging to a white supremacist church could deny service to a black or Hispanic person under the proposed bill. That denial could be especially harmful if the person using this bill is the only doctor or merchant for a specific item for many miles — a scenario possible in rural Washington, he said. He also speculated that student-led prayers could be performed at school activities under this proposal.
However, Kline contended religious safeguards should not be shortchanged or consigned to second-class status, although he believes they should not be elevated over other constitutional rights.
For example, he speculated that the pharmacists who don't want to stock "morning-after" birth control pills because of religious reasons should able to do so as long as they are prepared to send customers seeking such pills to an accessible pharmacy nearby that stocks them. O'Ban, who is working with Padden on religious freedom legislation. is also one of the attorneys representing the pharmacists mentioned by Kline.
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