A Washington State bill introduced by Senator Sharon Brown (R-Kennewick) on Thursday seeks an exemption to the state's non-discrimination laws.
The bill comes just weeks after legal action was taken against a florist in Richland who denied service to a gay couple for their upcoming wedding.
The bill is supported by several Republican lawmakers and would allow businesses the right to deny services or goods if they felt serving the individual was contrary to their "sincerely held religious beliefs, philosophical beliefs, or matters of conscience."
The measure would not apply to denying services to people under a class protected by federal law such as race, religion, or disability. However, it would apply to those in the LGBT community.
Brown explained that she introduced the bill to help protect people or religious organizations from legal persecution. She added, "There's a glaring lack of protection for religion in state law."
Along with Brown, Sens. Janea Holmquist Newbry, Mike Hewitt, Jim Honeyford, Don Benton, Barbara Bailey, Mike Padden, John Braun, John Smith, Ann Rivers, and Linda Evans Parlette also signed the non-discrimination exemption bill.
The bill is a response to a lawsuit filed in Washington state by the American Civil Liberties Union over a March 1 incident where Barronelle Stutzman refused to provide flowers for Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed's wedding. The two were longtime patrons of Stutzman's floral shop.
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson also filed a consumer protection lawsuit in the case. Ferguson previously sent a letter to Stutzman asking her to comply with the law. But the florist's attorneys responded to say she would challenge any state action to enforce the law.
Stutzman's attorney, Justin D. Bristol, added that he expects the legal battle will go up to the federal level based on the 1st Amendment right to free speech. While gay marriage has only been legal in Washington state since December, protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation were codified in 2006.
Under the state's law, it is illegal for a business to refuse to sell goods, merchandise, and services to someone based on their sexual orientation. Josh Friedes, a spokesman for Equal Rights Washington, stated that the Senate bill seeks to undermine the state's non-discrimination laws. He added "it undermines our entire approach to ensuring the equality of all Washingtonians in commerce. It is discrimination, pure and simple."
But Brown disagrees. She argued that the bill is not intended as a way to undermine the laws or any rights of gays and lesbians in the state. The lawmaker added that it is also not a commentary on the state's gay marriage laws. Instead, Brown explained, "The citizens of the state clearly weighed in on that issue. It's intended to protect religious freedoms."
It is unclear if the bill seeking exemption to Washington's non-discrimination law will be heard before the state's Senate.
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