State’s strong notions on equality will triumph

How regressive are Republicans in the state Senate? A late bill introduced Friday and co-sponsored by nearly half of the Senate’s Republicans proposes to gut Washington’s Civil Rights Act with legislation bewilderingly out of touch with public sentiment.

Eleven Republican senators put their name to a bill that would effectively legalize discrimination against gay men and lesbians based on religious beliefs, philosophical views or simply matters of conscience.

In other words, for example, a restaurant could refuse to serve lunch to gay customers. An employer could fire someone because she is a lesbian. If your religion or conscience tells you it’s the right thing to do, then you should be legally free to discriminate, according to Senate Bill 5927.

The measure is an injudicious response to a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson against a Richland florist who refused to furnish flowers for a same-sex wedding. The florist quoted her Christian beliefs. The AG’s office cited the Washington Law Against Discrimination, which includes sexual orientation.

After the parties could not reach a settlement, Ferguson sued, saying, “Under the Consumer Protection Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against customers on the basis of sexual orientation. If a business provides a product or service to opposite-sex couples for their weddings, then it must provide same-sex couples the same product or service.”

The florist case is evidence that not everyone has accepted marriage equality. A small and decreasing minority of Washingtonians disapprove of same-sex unions, so it was inevitable that the lingering remnants of discrimination against individual gay men and lesbians exercising their right to marry in this state would wind up in the courts.

Nor was it unexpected that right-wing groups, such as the National Organization for Marriage and the Family Policy Institute of Washington, would jump into the fray. By making the Richland florist a martyr, opponents of marriage equality hope to turn the momentum in what appears a losing battle.

But we didn’t expect radical social engineering from the Republican-controlled Senate, especially one that slammed the door on every piece of legislation unrelated to education and state finances.

Not even these 11 misguided senators would be so foolish as to propose that florists could refuse to serve blacks, or that a hair salon could reject Jewish women – the bill exempts all of the federally protected classes of race, religion and the disabled.

So why are the Republicans serving up people who are gay as targets for discrimination? This bill is about Senate Republicans trying to appease their religious right base of support, and they pursue it at their own peril in the next election.

Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, said in support of the bill “there’s a glaring lack of protection for religion in state law.”

She’s wrong. Washingtonians have the same right to religious freedom as everyone else protected by the First Amendment.

In America, you can’t use religion as an excuse to break other laws. It’s up to the courts to decide if that happened in this case.

We’re confident that discrimination of any kind will ultimately buckle against this state’s long and strongly held notions of equality.

(Senate Republicans sponsoring the bill are Sharon Brown, Janea Holmquist Newbry, Mike Hewitt, Jim Honeyford, Don Benton, Barbara Bailey, Mike Padden, John Braun, Centralia, John Smith, Ann Rivers and Linda Evans Parlette.)