(Reuters) Democratic senators in Missouri were staging a filibuster into Tuesday evening (March 8), trying to block a Republican-proposed amendment to the state constitution that would prohibit penalties on religious groups that discriminate against same-sex couples.
The Democratic caucus began the filibuster at 4 p.m. on Monday and members said they planned to continue until Wednesday. A filibuster is a prolonged debate — often around the clock — aimed at blocking progress of an initiative.
The proposed amendment in Missouri is the latest in a series of measures introduced around the country by conservatives in reaction to last year’s U.S. Supreme Court legalization of same-sex marriage.
The Florida legislature last week sent a bill to Gov. Rick Scott — which he says he will sign — specifying that churches can’t be forced to marry same-sex couples.
Opponents said such a law isn’t necessary because it is already unconstitutional to force a religious group to marry a couple. They said it is an overreaction to last year’s high court ruling.
Measures like the one being debated in Missouri also seek to protect religious groups and companies from being fined or punished if they decline to provide services such as wedding cakes or flowers to same-sex couples.
“The most offensive thing is that it would put discriminatory language into the constitution of the state. But it would also put general revenue of the state at risk,” Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny, a Democrat, told Reuters.
He pointed to a similar Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana that led to groups threatening to cancel conventions in Indianapolis.
If the resolution to amend the constitution, SJR 39, passes the Senate, it would go to the state’s House of Representatives and then to Missouri voters for approval.
Republicans dominate both houses of Missouri’s General Assembly, with 24 of 34 Senate seats and 116 of 163 House seats.
Keaveny said Republicans could respond to the filibuster by forcing a vote on the resolution to amend the constitution, but said that would be an unusual step. They could withdraw the resolution, or put it on an informal calendar to debate at a later date.
Republican Senator Bob Onder, who sponsored the resolution, said the resolution does not discriminate, but protects vulnerable religious institutions.
“We are fighting for fairness and the right for people to freely live out their faith while not infringing on the rights of others,” he said.
The language of the proposed amendment says it “prohibits the state from imposing a penalty on a religious organization who acts in accordance with a sincere religious belief concerning same sex marriage, which includes the refusal to perform a same sex marriage ceremony or allow a same sex wedding ceremony to be performed on the religious organization’s property.”
Although the amendment does not mention companies, Keaveny said Democrats believe it would allow businesses to claim religious belief as a defense for refusing service to same-sex couples.