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Kansas gay marriage debate pushed to next year

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Kansas legislators are finished considering new legal protections this year for those who oppose gay marriage on religious grounds but will debate the issue in 2015, the state Senate's top leader said Thursday.

Senate President Susan Wagle said she wasn't persuaded by testimony during a Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing Thursday to have senators draft an alternative to a "religious freedom" bill that passed the House last month and was blasted by business and gay-rights groups. The Senate committee hearing examined existing religious liberties protections in the state constitution and in Kansas' laws.

Senators heard conflicting testimony from lawyers and legal scholars about whether Kansas already has enough legal protections for individuals, groups and businesses that refuse for religious reasons to provide goods or services for gay wedding ceremonies or same-sex marriages. Critics of the House bill said it was much broader than advertised and would encourage discrimination against gays and lesbians, including by government employees.

Wagle, a Wichita Republican, and committee chairman Jeff King, an Independence Republican, had declared the House bill dead, but King nevertheless scheduled the Judiciary Committee hearing to examine the state's legal landscape. King said Thursday he doesn't plan to take up the issue again this year.

The issue is tricky for Wagle, King and fellow Republicans who control the Legislature because Christian evangelicals and socially conservative Catholics are influential within the state's GOP caucus and still want a bill to pass this year.

But businesses and business groups, also a core GOP constituency, want lawmakers to drop the issue, fearing protections for individual workers who refuse to be involved in gay weddings or marriages will interfere with business decisions. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a "religious freedom" bill in her state last week amid strong business opposition.

Wagle said legislators "absolutely" should pursue a bill next year because most Kansans support both "traditional" marriage and protecting religious liberties. She said the House bill is too flawed to fix.

"This is a huge topic, and this is something that every word has to be right," Wagle said after sitting in on the committee hearing as a non-member.

Several attorneys and legal scholars bolstered gay-rights advocates' arguments, saying Kansas already provides ample legal protections against government fines or private lawsuits to state residents who act on their religious beliefs against gay marriage.

Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the state's leading gay-rights group, said lawmakers should consider expanding state anti-discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation and gender identity if they're going to discuss religious liberties protections for gay-marriage opponents.

"I will work with the proponents on a compromise bill," Witt said after the hearing. "The other side has to be willing to come partway."

But Helen Alvare, a George Mason University law professor, testified that legislators should enact new religious liberties protections now because, "the wreckage of state laws on marriage is all around us."

And a dozen Kansas religious leaders urged legislators to act before the state's gay-marriage ban is invalidated. They included Catholic bishops and a Presbyterian pastor as well as regional Mormon, Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God and Church of God in Christ leaders.

Robert Noland, executive director of the conservative Kansas Family Policy Council, said it's "profoundly frustrating" to suspend the debate until next year.

"We're going to be making sure that our grassroots know about this, and we'll be encouraging people to communicate with the committee as well and see if they can change that," Noland said.

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Online:

Information on the House-passed bill: http://bit.ly/1dhFdQi

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna .