SPRINGFIELD – Citizens of Springfield will vote ‘yes’ April 7 to restore religious liberty protections or ‘no’ to keep an “equal rights” ordinance that extends nondiscrimination protection to include sexual orientation and “gender identity.” Critics of the ordinance say Missouri has laws already on the books offering protections, and that the ordinance goes too far at the expense of religious liberty.
The city’s council voted 6 to 3 Oct. 13, 2014, to approve Ordinance 6141, which codifies protection in housing, employment and public accommodations. It went into effect immediately. Council members Doug Burlison, Mike Carroll, Craig Hosmer, Jan Fisk, Cindy Rushefsky and Jeff Seifried voted for the bill. Council members Jerry Compton, Craig Fishel and Bob Stephens voted against it. There is a church exemption, but there is no accommodation for Christians who own a business or otherwise want to exercise their faith outside a church setting.
Those against the ordinance, including many in the religious community, immediately began gathering signatures to put the issue to a vote of the people. They needed 1,144 valid signatures, and submitted 2,550 to be verified two weeks later. The approved language for the ballot question has been called confusing by both sides of the debate, but voters will vote “yes” to repeal the measure, and “no” to retain it.
The deadline to register to vote for the election is March 11. Registration forms can be found at the Missouri Secretary of State’s website. Greene County residents can also register at the County Clerk’s office at 940 Boonville Ave., Room 113.
The timing is noteworthy as various battles between religious liberty and so-called gay rights flare up around the country. New stories of florists and bakers accused of illegal discrimination against homosexual couples pop up weekly as state judges in Alabama uphold traditional marriage and the United States Supreme Court takes up the issue this summer. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to begin hearing arguments in May on cases involving Missouri, Arkansas and South Dakota couples.
Two Kansas City couples who were denied marriage licenses are included in that case. A federal judge sided with the Kansas City couples, striking down the constitutional amendment excluding gay and lesbian couples from marriage. But the judge also said that his decision would be stayed until “judgment is final.”
The possible intrusive implications of an “equal rights” bill became clear in a dramatic fashion last fall when the openly gay mayor of Houston, Texas, and the city’s attorneys demanded pastors turn into authorities sermons that may be critical of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) or behavior the Bible calls sinful. The city is fighting Bible-believing Christians’ efforts to repeal the law, and subpoenaed “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition [to repeal the law], Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.” In Houston, the legal battle over the validity of signatures on a ballot petition there wages on. A repeal question may appear on the ballot in November.
When the Springfield ordinance was passed, Dee Wampler, an attorney and member of Second Baptist Church, Springfield, wrote before the issue came to a vote that the ordinance gives Springfield’s mayor power similar to that just used in Houston, powers that go beyond violations of the first amendment.
“The mayor ‘shall’ (not ‘may’) have access to your business and/or house to seize records and documents and to question or search an individual for ‘possible sources of evidence,’ he wrote in an op-ed in the Community Free Press. “Forget about your protections under the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution.”
Wampler called the religious exemption very narrow, saying it is limited to churches in hiring and firing staff.
“Missouri law already prohibits unfair treatment in employment, housing and public accommodations based on age, gender, race, color and national origin, as does strict federal law,” he continued.
The “equal rights” ordinance has been bubbling in Springfield since at least 2012. In August of that year the city council voted 7-2 to table a proposed ordinance when Christians made their voices heard at city council meetings. At the time, Mayor Bob Stephens complained to the Springfield News-Leader of “unrelenting harping” from the pro-biblical marriage advocates and silence – at the time – from ordinance proponents.