Missouri's Proposed Religious Freedom Amendment Sets Old Allies At Odds The business community, including solidly GOP-leaning groups, oppose the bill, after seeing the effect of similar measures elsewhere. The blowback has surprised Christian conservatives in Missouri.
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Missouri's Proposed Religious Freedom Amendment Sets Old Allies At Odds

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Missouri's Proposed Religious Freedom Amendment Sets Old Allies At Odds

Missouri's Proposed Religious Freedom Amendment Sets Old Allies At Odds

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Whenever a so-called religious freedom bill pops up in a state, you can bet there will be controversy. In Missouri, the business community has been early to speak out against a proposal there. Frank Morris of member station KCUR has the story.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The proposal in Missouri would establish a state constitutional right for certain people to refuse to be involved in celebrating same-sex weddings. Supporters here are pulling out all the stops.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN YEATS: Thank you, everybody, for coming in defense of religious freedom today.

(APPLAUSE)

MORRIS: An enthusiastic crowd filled the rotunda of the Missouri State House this week pledging to fight back against what they see as an assault on long-held religious beliefs. Missouri Baptist Convention Director John Yeats says Senate Joint Resolution 39 simply shields a vocal constituency in Missouri from being forced by the government to take part in something they find morally wrong - gay marriage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YEATS: You would think that SJR 39 would be a common-sensed no-brainer.

(APPLAUSE)

MORRIS: But while Yeats sees a threat to religious liberty, Joe Reardon sees a threat to commerce.

JOE REARDON: We're talking about profitability. We're talking about jobs.

MORRIS: Reardon runs the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and says the biggest business groups in the state have locked arms against the amendment. Hundreds of individual businesses have piled on.

REARDON: It's every sort of business in Kansas City coming together in common cause around this, and that's been remarkable to me.

MORRIS: Some companies have long stood for LGBT rights, but Stuart Hinds, who runs the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, says the current level of massed business support is something new.

STUART HINDS: It's a phenomenal shift, and it's incredible to see it happen so quickly.

MORRIS: It's not hard to see what businesses are worried about. Mark Fisher with the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce says the city lost at least $60 million worth of convention business when his state passed a religious freedom act last year.

MARK FISHER: We all need to realize that social issues are economic issues now.

MORRIS: Indiana Governor Mike Pence, a Republican, scaled back the law just one week after signing it but not quickly enough, according to Fisher.

FISHER: This can be a defining brand or defining image for your city, and how will that affect your ability to attract and retain talent?

MORRIS: This is precisely why Monsanto, the global crop technology firm based in St. Louis, is fighting the Missouri proposal. Monsanto isn't exactly a liberal darling. The company's funding Republican congressional candidates this year are more than three times the level it's giving to Democrats. But Monsanto lobbyist Duane Simpson says recruiting and keeping world-class researchers is hard enough now.

DUANE SIMPSON: We're just asking legislators not to make our job more difficult by making the state appear unwelcoming.

MORRIS: And if a place is perceived as being unwelcoming to conventions or business talent, your typical tourist may shun it as well.

MORRIS: David Epstein is the co-owner of Tom's Town, a new distillery and art deco bar in an old part of Kansas City that's blossoming with fresh restaurants, galleries and tech startups. And he calls the amendment an existential threat.

DAVID EPSTEIN: Religious freedom bill which I think is so misnamed would decimate us.

MORRIS: This level of alarm from businesses in Missouri comes as something of a shock. Senator Bob Onder, who wrote the religious protection legislation, says corporate opposition has materialized just since mid-February.

BOB ONDER: When I presented this bill and committee on the state senate, not a single business lobbyist came to testify against my bill.

MORRIS: And there was little reason to think that they would. After all, as Don Hinkle with the Missouri Baptist Convention points out, conservative Christians have long worked hand in glove with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.

DON HINKLE: We've been on the same side of issues for so many times for so long. And for them to think that our religious freedom is for sale, much less the gospel of Jesus Christ is for sale, to us, it's heartbreaking.

MORRIS: So an amendment that passed overwhelmingly in the Missouri Senate now seems to be stalled in the House. If it does clear the legislature, though, it would then go to a public vote, likely triggering an even bigger fight pitting Christian conservatives against their old allies in business. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

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