The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

February 25, 2014

State's gay discrimination bill being redrafted

OKLAHOMA CITY — An Oklahoma bill that would allow business owners with strongly held religious beliefs to refuse service to gays will be rewritten and likely won’t be considered in its current form this legislative session, the measure’s House author said Tuesday.

The bill, which is similar to one that has set off a political firestorm in Arizona and some being considered in other states, would have provided legal immunity to anyone who refuses services to gays and lesbians based on the person’s “sincerely held religious belief.”

“We’re still in favor of running a bill like that, but we’re just trying to get the language tightened up to prevent there from being any fiascos like there have been elsewhere,” said Rep. Tom Newell, R-Seminole.

Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer is facing intensifying pressure from CEOs, politicians in Washington, D.C., and state lawmakers in her own party to veto a similar bill in that state. Critics denounce the measure as blatantly discriminatory and embarrassing to Arizona.

“We are committed to trying to find, which will have to be next session now, a bill that we can protect freedom of conscience for private business owners,” Newell said.

Scott Hamilton, the director of the gay rights group Cimarron Alliance, called Newell’s proposal a “disappointing step backward for the state.”

“It sends a very loud message to any employer that’s looking to expand into Oklahoma that if they’re concerned at all about their employees, it would be better to look elsewhere,” Hamilton said.

Newell, a pastor, said the language in the bill will be replaced this year with a proposed new law protecting religious student associations on public university campuses from discrimination.

“I realize it’s a tricky thing, but I do think it’s something we need to look at, and people shouldn’t be forced to serve someone if it violates their religious conscience,” Newell said.

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