Conservatives Ready ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills In Hobby Lobby’s Wake

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Religious leaders in Kansas view the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision last week as an opportunity to revive legislation that would protect their “religious freedom” — measures that gay rights advocates warn would legitimize discrimination against LGBT people.

The Associated Press reported this weekend that social conservatives believe they have an opening to bring the state’s religious freedom bill back in 2015. The legislation failed this spring; it passed the House, but stalled in the Senate after significant backlash from business groups. It would have prevented businesses from being sued if they refused to serve LGBT people for religious reasons.

“We are not going to let it die. We are very committed,” Rev. Terry Fox, a leading Southern Baptist minister, told the AP. “The Body of Christ is a powerful movement when it comes together.”

Gay rights advocates and social conservatives alike had watched the Hobby Lobby case to see how it might influence their cause. The Court’s decision was decidedly narrow in its language, and some legal experts pointed TPM to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurring opinion in the case as evidence that he would not support discrimination against LGBT people on religious freedom grounds.

But others warned on the day of the ruling that conservatives would likely take Hobby Lobby’s win as their chance to resuscitate religious freedom legislation.

“The opinion really doesn’t really resolve the question of whether for-profit businesses can seek religious exemptions from anti-discrimination law,” Douglas NeJaime, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine, told TPM. “If I’m one of those groups, I’m going to pursue this.”

Religious leaders have already asked the White House for an exemption from President Barack Obama’s upcoming executive order aimed at preventing anti-LGBT discrimination by federal contractors. The conservative lobbyist behind Arizona’s religious freedom bill that gained national attention hinted she could revisit the issue. Now Kansas religious leaders are signaling they’ll do the same.

Gay rights advocates don’t seem to be fretting yet. First, they see the Hobby Lobby decision, and Kennedy in particular, on their side. Second, the forces that doomed the Arizona and Kansas bills — namely, the business community — are still in place. They aren’t surprised by the renewed push in Kansas, but they don’t believe it poses a danger to their cause.

“The ultra-conservative religious voices that championed the Kansas anti-gay bill last year have said consistently that they would try again. Hearing a renewed call now is no surprise,” Jenny Pizer, senior counsel at Lambda Legal, a gay rights organization, told TPM. “We’ve fully expected zealously anti-LGBT religious groups to ignore the Hobby Lobby decision’s language that it is not a shield for discrimination, and to wave it as a sword or, at least, a rallying banner, regardless of what it actually says.”

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