Democratic senators pushed back against a Senate Republican coalition bill that would allow businesses to choose not to serve customers because of religious or philosophical beliefs Friday.
The bill comes from the legal flap over a Richland flower shop refusing to sell floral arrangements to a gay couple for their wedding because of the owner's religious convictions against gay marriage. The state Attorney General's office is suing Arlene's Flowers of Kennewick and Richland, charging discrimination.
Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, said that that incident and a recent Senate resolution on religious freedom prompted her to introduce the bill. She wants to start a debate on protecting religious freedom in Washington, saying the state does not have a specific law on the books doing that. "I think that protecting religious freedom is very important. ... I'm not trying to undo the law on same sex marriage," she said.
The bill's language calls for keeping current anti-discrimination laws intact, but adds that "The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely-held religious belief, philosophical belief or matter of conscience may not be burdened unless the government proves that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest."
She viewed her bill as a first draft to be modified as debate ramps up. Brown said the bill would not forbid civil lawsuits on such matters. The bill has nine Republican Senate co-sponsors.
"I'm shocked that the Majority Coalition Caucus (23 Republicans and two Democrats) would introduce such a bill," said Senate Minority Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and one of the Legislature's spearheads on last year's gay marriage bill. "They are trying to confuse religious freedom with civil rights legislation."
Murray also noted that the current gay marriage law allows ministers to choose not to marry gay and lesbian couples because of religious beliefs.
"Under Senate Bill 5927, if you own a business in our state and don't like gay people because of religious beliefs, philosophical beliefs or just because you don't, you will no longer have to provide services or sell your goods to any gay people," warned Sen. Kevin Ranker. "How's that for progress."
"At the beginning of session, Republicans said that all social issues were off the table because the budget was their priority," Murray said "It takes someone truly shameless to say that in January and then, with three days left in session and without a deal on an operating, capital or transportation budget anywhere in sight, to introduce a bill that goes into our civil rights laws and decides who gets served and who doesn’t get served. Truly shameless."