The so-called religious shield law, SJR 39, has already made a big impact on the Missouri General Assembly’s session. And depending on what the Missouri House does in the next couple of weeks, the proposed constitutional amendment could loom very large over the race for Missouri governor.
The proposal would legally shield people from participating in or selling services to a same-sex wedding. To say the measure stoked controversy would be an understatement, especially after GOP senators used a parliamentary maneuver to cut off debate and get it to the House.
But unlike similar measures in Mississippi and Indiana, voters will have the final say over whether SJR 39 gets adopted into the Missouri Constitution. And that means if the House passes Sen. Bob Onder’s amendment without any changes, it could impact other races regardless of when Gov. Jay Nixon schedules the vote. After all, ballot initiatives have played a big role in the ebb and flow of competitive elections. Just ask U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill about it.
So with debate over SJR 39 at a fever pitch, this reporter thought it would be helpful to spell out what the five major gubernatorial candidates had to say about the amendment. Several candidates have been fairly out spoken in their positions. Others? Not so much.
It’s fair to say that Missouri’s lieutenant governor is a strong proponent of SJR 39 going to the ballot — and being adopted in Missouri Constitution.
Case in point: Kinder testified in favor of the proposed amendment last week during a House committee hearing. His message? “Let the people decide.”
“SJR 39 boils down to a simple question: Whether Missourians should be given the chance to decide whether the Missouri Constitution should be amended to provide vital protection for all Missourians’ religious liberties,” Kinder said during his testimony. “This is not about discrimination, as opponents are trying to spin it. It is purely about letting voters decide in an election this year and have a voice on reserving a zone of protected activity based on their sincere religious conviction.”
The three-term statewide official went onto say that the proposal “is but another piece of the fabric of religious liberty that everyone in America enjoys … whether Christian, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Hindu or even atheist.” He expressed disappointment that SJR 39 opponents “want to foreclose that public debate and deny the people of Missouri the chance to hear that debate and decide for themselves what goes in our constitution.”
“This zone of religious liberty is a foundational principle of America … a morally, legally, philosophically and ideologically neutral principle available to all comers,” Kinder said.
The former U.S. attorney and speaker of the Missouri House joined Kinder in having a favorable reception to SJR 39.
When GOP senators squashed a Democratic filibuster against the amendment, Hanaway released statement praising the move. She said that "Missourians' religious liberties should not be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness.”
In a statement sent to St. Louis Public Radio, Hanaway said she supported “protecting the rights of religious groups and individuals, and believes that Missourians should get to vote on initiatives that impact their churches, charities and communities.”
“I commend Sen. Onder’s efforts in crafting a provision that will serve as a shield for religious groups, and not a sword to be used against any Missourians,” Hanaway said. “I eagerly await for the House to finalize their version. I will not tolerate discrimination of any kind, and will make both non-discrimination and religious liberty core values of my administration.”
Brunner was arguably the least loquacious of the candidates who responded to this reporter’s queries on this issue.
When asked if he supported the amendment going to the ballot and being incorporated into the Missouri Constitution, Brunner said in a statement: "I support all efforts to defend the 1st Amendment of our Constitution and of those who support the cause of religious liberty."
I initially sent two e-mails last week inquiring about his position on SJR 39. Greitens’ campaign did not send a response back.
After others took notice of Greitens' lack of a response on the issue, Greitens sent me this statement on Tuesday night:
"It is a fact that people of faith are under attack in America, and our religious liberties are being threatened. That is why I respect and applaud the proponents of SJR39 for taking action to protect religious freedom. However, I don't believe this legislation is the right approach. I oppose SJR39 because I believe that while it is well-intentioned, it could unintentionally threaten our economy and job creation. Here in Missouri, we are already 47th in job growth and 42nd in wage growth. We simply cannot afford more policies from Jeff City that have the potential to kill jobs. This debate doesn’t have be a choice between protecting religious liberties or protecting Missouri jobs. We can and we must do both, but it will take real leadership. As Governor, I will protect the religious liberties of all Missourians, and ensure that pastors, rabbis, priests, and all members of the clergy are never forced to perform any ceremony that goes against their religious beliefs. At the same time, I will work everyday to make Missouri the top state in the nation to create and protect good-paying jobs. As a Navy SEAL, I was proud to serve in a US Military which protected religious liberty and ensured non-discrimination. As Governor, I will use that same common sense conservative approach to protect the religious liberties and freedoms of all Missourians."
It’s no secret that Koster has taken some policy positions that are more in line with Republicans than his own party. But that’s not the case here.
Missouri’s attorney general has strongly condemned the amendment as discriminatory and potentially harmful to Missouri’s economy. In a web video, the Democratic statewide official pointed to how Indiana lost economic development opportunities when it adopted a somewhat similar proposal last year.
"They lost $60 million in convention business that pulled out right away,” Koster said. “Angie’s List, one of the big internet companies, decided not to site their headquarters in the state, losing a thousand jobs and a $40 million headquarters there in Indiana. This Missouri General Assembly should be looking for opportunities to enhance our states business environment, not driving people and job opportunities away."
Koster also contended that adopting SJR 39 could make it more difficult for large Missouri employers to attracted qualified talent. He said in another web video that it sent a bad message to place “discrimination against Missouri’s gay community directly in the state's constitution.”
“Those of us who are trying to build a better economy are doing everything we can to attract the best and brightest 27-year-olds from all over the nation to come and live and work here,” Koster said. “These young people have a choice between Boston and Austin and Charlotte and Denver, but we’re trying to bring them here to St. Louis and Kansas City and towns across Missouri. I believe that flying a flag of discrimination over this state’s business community is the wrong way to attract the best and the brightest to help us build a stronger future."
It’s worth noting that Koster’s position is similar to business groups like Missouri Chamber of Commerce, which typically align with Republicans on major issues. It’s not out of the question that the state’s largest companies — and traditionally GOP donors — could pressure Missouri’s Republican candidates to stand down on SJR 39.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.