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On Obergefell anniversary, statewide candidates answer questions about gay rights and religious freedom


Last year, the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges made same-sex marriage the law of the land. While gay rights activists celebrated, the opposition worried about how to implement a ruling many felt violated their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Gay rights activists thought that the 2016 session would be their opportunity to move forward on other issues, focusing on passing the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act (MONA). Instead, the Senate nearly shut down with a 40 hour filibuster over SJR 39, a religious liberties bill that would have allowed businesses and clergy to opt out of participating in a gay marriage if it violated sincerely held religious beliefs.

The legislation failed, but the three Republican representatives who voted against the resolution in the House Emerging Issues Committee now face challenges from a political action committee.

In light of the events of session and the anniversary of the Obergefell decision, The Missouri Times asked all of the statewide candidates about their thoughts on religious freedom, gay rights and the interaction of the two.

Every statewide candidate receiving at least 10 percent in the last primary poll for their hopeful office received five questions. Their answers are presented here, unedited.

Has the Obergefell decision impacted religious freedom in Missouri over the past year? If so, how?

John Brunner, Republican for governor: I hold the belief, and my faith tells me, that marriage should be between one man and one woman.  My faith also tells me that I am to treat others as I would have them treat me, so I do not practice or condone the mistreatment or hatefulness toward members of the LGBT community.

In regard to the Supreme Court’s ruling the marriage issue – I do not believe that any ruling is final.  Many times throughout our nation’s history, the ruling of the Supreme Court has been undone by a later ruling or the passage of an amendment to our Constitution.  I would urge people of faith to continue to fight for religious freedom and our strongly-held beliefs.

Catherine Hanaway, Republican for governor: I have heard from church leaders throughout this state who fear persecution for their deeply held religious beliefs.  Many have felt forced to consult with lawyers to assess the legal liabilities faced by their churches and ministries.  I have heard from countless Missourians who fear being forced to violate their deeply held religious beliefs based on the Supreme Court’s unprecedented intrusion into marriage policy in the Obergefell decision.  Religious Missourians are frustrated with a government that seems to view their freedoms and rights as less valid and less important than any others.  The SJR 39 religious freedom initiative was prompted by these concerns, and I am disappointed that the Missouri House would not allow it to proceed to a vote this fall.

Peter Kinder, Republican for governor: Obergefell has heightened the discussion of how far the federal government can go in compelling individual business owners to engage in certain private business practices that violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Josh Hawley, Republican for attorney general: In the words of the great Chief Justice John Marshall, it is the province of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be. The Court departed from that duty in Obergefell v. Hodges by deciding for itself a question — the definition of marriage — the Constitution leaves to the states and the people. This decision opens up new fields of conflict between churches and religious ministries on the one hand and government on the other. Over a dozen municipalities in Missouri currently have local ordinances that penalize or otherwise disfavor churches, religious ministries, or individuals of faith for adhering to their religious convictions on marriage. The way to prevent a culture war on marriage is to permit churches and individuals to follow their sincerely held religious beliefs without harming others. This is the approach taken by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This is the approach that protects the rights of all.

Kurt Schaefer, Republican for attorney general: It is impossible to quantify just how many times the new law created by the US Supreme Court in Obergefell last year has already stifled individuals or institutions from publicly stating their beliefs for fear of retribution or how many times individuals or institutions have been threatened by governmental entities, subtly or directly, for failing to give up their beliefs in order to comply.

What do you see the grassroots consensus on gay rights to be? Do you think more than 50% of Missourians would have supported a state change if Obergefell hadn’t happened?

Chris Koster, Democrat for governor: Missouri, like the rest of the country, continues to evolve on the issue of marriage equality. Communities across our state recognize the LGBT community has always been present. They are business owners, teachers, doctors and community leaders who have made positive impacts across Missouri. The history of our country, and our state, has always been one of moving toward inclusion and equality

Jake Zimmerman, Democrat for attorney general: Missouri’s ban on same sex marriage has been ruled unconstitutional, and I will enforce the law as it stands. I have been consistent in saying that I believe the law should be enforced fairly, not with one set of rules for some people and a different set of rules for others. I believe that to be the case here as well, and I support marriage equality and I believe the majority of Missourians would agree.

What, if anything, should be done to protect rights of those who object to participating in gay marriages on religious grounds?

Mike Parson, Republican for lt. governor: I think that those with a religious objection to participating in gay marriages should be protected from any attempt to force their participation.  This year’s SJR39 would have done this, and I am very disappointed that the House stopped this bill before it could receive a full debate on the floor.

Bev Randles, Republican for lt. governor: A constitutional amendment like SJR 39 would protect those who object to participating in gay marriage ceremonies based on their deeply held religious beliefs.

Will Kraus, Republican for secretary of state: No one should be forced to participate in any religious ceremony or other act where they do not agree on religious grounds. The Missouri Constitution and state statutes should clearly state that religious rights for clergy, religious organizations, and citizens should be upheld.

What would you do in office to protect religious freedom?

Brunner: I support all efforts to defend the 1st Amendment of our Constitution and of those who support the cause of religious liberty. Our First Amendment, and our other freedoms, are under constant attack by those seeking to eliminate rights from the majority of our citizens who hold sincere religious beliefs.

Our Constitution is clear: Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise thereof (Religion). On day one as Governor I will be prepared to protect the Constitution, embrace the entire Bill of Rights and get government out of the way so Missourians can once again prosper.

Hanaway: First and foremost, I would make sure that state departments and agencies are not discriminating against religious individuals and organizations.  The Trinity Lutheran v. Pauley case that is now before the Supreme Court is a perfect example of this.  There, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources discriminated against a preschool affiliated with a church group in ruling on grant applications.  All too often, we have seen runaway government trample on the rights of Missourians.

Kinder: I’ll continue to fight for the protection of our constitutionally guaranteed religious liberties and push back against threats on religious freedom by the federal government and radical left. As a state senator, I sponsored and passed Missouri’s original Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and as governor I’ll ensure that all Missourians’ religious liberties are protected through commonsense legislation and our state Constitution.

Koster: I believe we can both protect the religious liberties and the LGBT community at the same time. I support protecting religious leaders such as priests, ministers, etc., from performing services that violate the core beliefs of their faith. SJR 39 was an overly broad bill that would have done harm to the state and our citizens.

Parson: There is a reason that religious freedoms are included in the First Amendment – they are a core precept of our national ideal of liberty.  Protecting religious freedoms is of the utmost importance, and I will do all that I can to promote legislation that will protect the right of Missourians to exercise their religious beliefs.  If any legislation is up for a tie in the Senate, I will vote on the side of religious freedom, every time.

Randles: I would push for a constitutional amendment, such as SJR 39, that would protect our religious liberties.

Hawley: The Constitution makes religious liberty our first liberty. It has suffered unprecedented assault from the Obama Administration. As Attorney General, I will stand up for the constitutionally protected liberties of churches, ministries, and people of faith against an overreaching and out-of-control government. This defense includes enforcing Missouri’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which protects ministries and people of faith against arbitrary discrimination.  

Schaefer: The US Supreme Court’s creation of a right to gay marriage in Obergefell was not the final determination of the issue. Rather, it was the first step in what will likely be a decades long process of determining how this newly created right can in any way fit with the centuries old founding principle of individual religious liberty in the US. That will be done through fighting in court to protect individual religious liberty from attempts by government to make individuals and religious institutions give up their beliefs in order to conform with the law created in Obergefell. I will fight in any state or federal court, as I have been doing for over twenty years on numerous constitutional issues, to protect the right of individual religious liberty as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

Zimmerman: This job is about making sure all Missourians are treated fairly under the law. I’ve dedicated my career to fairness and justice, whether it’s fighting on behalf of Missourians who had been victimized by illegal and unfair business practices, pushing ethics reform in the state legislature or protecting St. Louis County residents from corporations not paying their share of taxes. I believe there is a right way and a wrong way to enforce the law and I believe I’m the best person to take on this fight.

Kraus: As a State Senator I have consistently fought for our rights, rights granted by God and protected by both the U.S. and Missouri Constitutions. I would continue to fight to protect these rights, including our freedom of religion, as Secretary of State.

How do you weigh religious freedom rights versus individual freedoms?

Brunner: I believe both are fundamental God-given rights. As a United States Marine I raised my right hand and swore an oath to defend the Constitution. That oath of office has no expiration date. It is possible to understand and respect each other’s views without compromising our religious and individual freedoms.

We have already sacrificed enough of our personal freedoms. This is not the country, nor the Missouri, I grew up in. Our next Governor must be willing to stand and fight back, for our Constitution and against the power of our overreaching government – something this Governor and Chris Koster have failed to do.

Hanaway: Religious freedom rights are individual freedoms.  Indeed, our Bill of Rights places religious freedom first among the rights that it guarantees.  I believe that this question is a false choice.  We cannot claim to be protecting individual freedoms if we do not safeguard individuals’ freedom to practice their religions.

Kinder: A key problem is when these two things – religious and individual freedoms – are considered separately. I believe them to be inextricably linked.

Koster: This is not an “either or” proposition. I believe that by working across party lines to find a common sense way to do both is the best path forward. As we saw in the debate over SJR39, there was bipartisan opposition to the overly broad and discriminatory language of the ballot measure. If all stakeholders are able to provide their input and comments, we can avoid a repeat of that legislative misstep and find language all would deem acceptable.

Parson: Religious freedoms are in the First Amendment to our Constitution and are among our core individual freedoms, and must be protected.

Randles: There is no distinction between the two. Our religious freedoms are our individual freedoms. Without religious freedoms, all others quickly dissipate. The current political environment is setting up a false conflict between the two. What is going now is not personal freedoms conflicting with religious freedom. It is government control squelching religious freedom.

Hawley: Religious freedom is an individual freedom, as well as a corporate one, and it belongs to all individuals. The First Amendment makes this crystal clear.  As Missouri’s Attorney General, I will lead the fight to protect all the liberties vouchsafed to us by our Constitution and laws.

Schaefer: Individual religious liberty is an individual freedom and a core principle upon which this country was founded. That is why the right is enumerated specifically in the very first amendment to the US Constitution. By law it takes priority over lesser rights created by courts or legislative bodies.  

Zimmerman: The Attorney General’s office is essentially the state’s largest law office. I believe it is critically important that taxpayers’ dollars are spent wisely and responsibly when choosing between important policies and values. The decisions that will face the next AG are hard to predict today, but I will be the kind of AG who will prioritize with a lens of fairness.

Kraus: Freedom of Religion is mentioned in the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and in Article 1, Section 5 of the Missouri Constitution. It’s placement near the beginning of both documents was no accident. Our country was founded by people whose religion was demeaned and threatened.  Protecting that freedom should be one of our most solemn duties.

What’s the state of LGBT rights in Missouri?

Brunner: We are in unique time in Missouri’s history where the ongoing debate of these issues have continued to divide us because of a lack of leadership in our state. Tolerance works both ways – by its very definition. Mutual respect is the foundation for working together. I know there are ways to safeguard the freedom of those who hold sincere religious beliefs, without sacrificing the rights of others. Our next Governor is going to have to lead the discussion on these issues, and I look forward to working to protect all of Missourians Constitutional rights, especially our 1st Amendment rights.

Hanaway: I believe that all Missourians have equal rights and have an equal claim to protection by their state government.  LGBT Missourians, like all Missourians, worry about the safety of our streets and the health of our economy.  As Governor, I am committed to listening to the voices of all Missourians as we rebuild a better, safer, and stronger Missouri.

Kinder: I believe that Missouri is striving to be a state where all residents can live and work freely, while still exercising their sincerely held beliefs and values.

Hawley: The US Constitution protects the rights of gay Missourians as they do all Missourians.  Freedoms of speech and religion, rights of due process, rights to bear arms and all others enumerated in the constitutions of the US and this state apply to all Missourians.  Courts should interpret those rights—and apply them equally—according to the original meaning of those who drafted those amendments.

Schaefer: As is the case with any special interest group trying to secure their own special protections in the law, I do not believe we need to create new reasons for people to sue each other.

Are there continued threats to gay rights in Missouri? What are they?

Koster: Right now, Missouri lacks statutory protections for the LGBT community. I am committed to working with the legislature to pass a nondiscrimination bill that offers the LGBT community the same workplace and housing protections offered to the other citizens of our state.

Zimmerman: Yes, you can still be fired just for being gay in Missouri. There’s no single position in Missouri where it is more important to have someone committed to the principle of fairness than Attorney General. Because our system of justice is founded on a powerful idea: Equal justice under law.

Do you support the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act (MONA)? Would you implement a similar policy in your own office?

Brunner: I do not support discrimination of any kind, but I believe these policies should be left at the company-level to implement. As a Marine and businessperson I worked with and led employees from every background and belief – I never tolerated discrimination of any kind, nor will I as Governor.

I am for less government and more freedom, which I believe results in more opportunity. Employers should have the freedom to implement their own common sense non-discrimination policies. I am not in favor of forcing a top-down, one-size-fits-all mandate where trial lawyers prosper, and businesses fail or leave our state, causing an exodus of good paying Missouri jobs.

Hanaway: Hiring and employment decisions in my office will be based solely on individuals’ qualifications and performance.  I do not believe in judging individuals on the basis of what group they are a part of or what box they check on a census form.  I oppose MONA because I oppose giving government regulators and trial lawyers even more control over Missouri employers and businesses than they already have.

Kinder: Every person deserves to be judged on their merits and I am against discrimination for any reason. However, we must examine our broken employment law system. We are one of the least attractive states for companies to do business in currently. This hurts all Missouri residents because it means we have fewer employment opportunities and choices. We cannot have elected officials who are bought and paid for by liberal trial attorneys and therefore don’t pass laws that support small businesses. I support employment reform proposals that benefit employees and employers alike. The only people who won’t be advantaged will be trial attorneys who pursue meritless litigation. We must reform our current system in a way that promotes prosperity and equal opportunity for all Missourians.

Koster: Yes. As Attorney General, I have had a longstanding nondiscrimination policy regarding the LGBT community and I would maintain Gov. Nixon’s executive order on the topic.

Parson: I do not support discrimination, but MONA is a flawed piece of legislation, and that is why it has not made it through the legislative process.  My office will not discriminate against anyone.

Randles: I do not. The existing discrimination statutes have been broadening beyond recognition by the courts. The constitutional amendments and the statutes were meant to address issues that have been of public concern since the founding of the Republic – race, ethnicity, religion, and discrimination against women. The existing statutes were never meant to create a litigation rich environment requiring continual political correctness in speech in the workplace. This twisting of the statutes by activist judges and misguided legislators, has created the unconstitutional situation where the state can punish speech and the general cultural atmosphere of a workplace. These abuses of the existing laws need to be reformed instead of extending these abuses to cover new areas.

Hawley: I oppose efforts that would increase the liability of job creators and threaten religious liberties while further increasing government interference in labor markets.

Schaefer: I do not support MONA. The employment rules for the Attorney General’s Office are the same for all state offices, and the State of Missouri does not create special protections for gay individuals. My policy for employees in the Attorney General’s Office will be this: If you work hard and deliver high quality work for the people of Missouri, you will have a job; if you don’t, then you will not have a job in the Attorney General’s Office.

Zimmerman: Yes, in fact, I co-sponsored the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act. No one in this state should be fired because of whom they love. I certainly would implement a similar policy in my office.

Kraus: I do not believe we need a new discrimination act, or a new protected class. Such a law would only lead to more litigation.  I also do not believe that anyone should be hired or fired for any other reason than job performance or elimination of the position entirely. As Secretary of State I will not discriminate for any reason, will tell my management team not to discriminate for any reason, and will work with any group who thinks we have failed in that regard.

Should Missouri enact any further reforms regarding gay marriage or rights?

Parson: I believe that we need to adopt legislation similar to SJR 39 that will protect the rights of those with religious objections from attempts to force their participation in marriages they are morally opposed to.

Randles: Missouri’s SJR 39, which was defeated in the 2016 legislative session, should become the law in Missouri.

Kraus: While the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken on same sex marriage, I believe we can protect the religious freedoms of those whose religion disagrees with that decision, while still fulfilling the requirements of the decision. I believe the legislature, or the people if they fail, can find way to do that.