JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A controversial Senate bill offered by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, faced its first hearing Tuesday in a room divided on the issue with little overt controversy.
SB 916, a piece of legislation that modifies certain definitions in the Missouri Human Rights Act, has garnered strong support and opposition, but the atmosphere during in the Senate Lounge was civil and largely dispassionate.
While many religious liberty reaffirmation bills across the country have come about due to the US Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, which legalized gay marriage, Schaefer explained that his bill came from the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision in Farrow v. St. Francis Medical Center. The Farrow case dealt with a woman who was terminated from a religious hospital after she was sexually harassed and felt unsafe in that work environment. She filed for discrimination charges and won on many of her contentions against St. Francis.
However, Schaefer and University of Missouri law professor Carl S. Beck argued that the rule created by the Missouri Commission on Human Rights on religious exemptions from the Missouri Human Rights Act based on the Farrow ruling made the definition of a religious organization so narrow that no organization could actually fulfill the requirements. The rule uses the phrase “owned and operated.” Since many religious organizations, including St. Francis, are classified as 501(c)(3) nonprofits, they technically have no owners, and therefore cannot receive that exemption based on religious grounds.
So, Schaefer seeks to broaden the definition of a religious organization with SB 916. The new definition can be read in the bill’s text here.
“This is where the rubber hits the road if you’re a religious organization,” Schaefer said. “As we are in this new frontier of religious liberties, we have to make sure deeply held religious beliefs are protected, essentially, from the government.”
George Paul Wood, a pastor with the Assembly of God, said the bill would help protect all of the Assembly of God’s assets, which are wide-ranging.
“The general council of the Assembly of God owns and operates… two universities,” Wood said, adding that it also ran hospitals, shelters, and, of course, churches. “If I’m understanding the problem with the Farrow decision, it means that even those institutions… could be sued under the Missouri Human Rights Acts for a variety of reasons.”
But others expressed fears that Schaefer’s broader definition would allow for more discrimination by more organizations based on gender, race or sexual identity. Paul Bullman, a sexual harassment attorney from Kansas City, said the proposed change could allow for religious organizations to get away with misdeeds, noting that he has argued cases for clients discriminated against and sexually harassed by religious organizations.
“I represent people denied their religious liberty at work,” he said. “Sexual harassment is not religious liberty. Racism is not religious liberty.”
Sarah Rossi with the ACLU of Missouri listed off the possible community services that could possibly begin to discriminate based on their religious views, including charities, schools, hospitals, and many others.
“All of those things could be religiously affiliated or just non-profits that want to operate in a certain way that could be discriminatory,” she said. “There does need to be a definition, but the definition needs to be narrow.”