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Lawmaker introduces ‘Freedom of Conscience’ bill; says measure is not anti-gay

Sen. Paul Gazelka wants to “start the conversation” about whether people with religious objections to gay marriage should be required to provide their services to same-sex couples. 

State Sen. Paul Gazelka
State Sen. Paul Gazelka

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, was speaking as gently as he could when he introduced a bill covering one of the nation’s most contentious debates. And right off the top he conceded that his  “Freedom of Conscience’’ bill isn’t going anywhere — at least this session.

“I wanted to start the conversation,” Gazelka said of why he’s introducing the bill so late in the session. Of course, conversations about the issues this bill covers — whether people of deep religious conviction can be required to provide their services to same-sex marriages? — have been going on since gay marriage has become legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia.

It comes down to this, Gazelka believes: Religious freedom versus civil rights. Should that main street baker be required to bake a cake for a gay marriage? Should the professional photographer be required to take photographs of the wedding? Should a private facility that offers wedding venues be required to host a same-sex wedding?

“I want a public conversation that leads to a safe place so both sides can live their lives as they please,’’ said Gazelka. “Everybody should be able to live as they want.’’ His bill, he continued, is “surgical’’ and not nearly so broad as bills that have been debated in other states, such as Indiana.

His bill would apply only to small businesses, which he defines as businesses employing 20 or fewer people. But his bill would not apply even in those cases if a couple could not obtain similar services within a “reasonable distance” (in this case 30 miles) or if there is no other business able to provide the services within in “reasonable time frame.” 

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Clearly, though, this is a thin-ice issue that few in the Legislature are willing to take on. Gazelka said that he’d spent more than a year crafting the language of the bill and that he’s spent considerable time attempting to get DFL legislators to sign on. Some expressed empathy, Gazelka said, but no DFLers agreed to be a co-author. 

There also appears to be no support from anyone the GOP’s leadership in the Senate or the House to take on this issue this year — or ever. 

Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, did stand with Gazelka at a Thursday morning media event, but he made it clear he was not going to create companion legislation for the House.

“Dropping a bill at this time seems like a blunt instrument,’‘ Miller said. “No one [in House leadership] said, ‘No, no, no,’ but they did say they want to focus more on the budget.’’

Gazelka’s moves before introducing the bill showed that he understands the need for diplomacy in this issue. For example, he purposely did not invite representatives of the Minnesota Family Council to stand with him at his news event, understanding that the socially conservative organization is seen as a red flag by those less conservative.

Gazelka also said he reached out to gay rights organizations, such as OutFront Minnesota, hoping for support. Not surprisingly, there was no support forthcoming.

“We did speak with him,’’ said Monica Meyer, executive director of OutFront Minnesota, “just as we talk with anyone regarding GLBT issues. We also made it clear we’d oppose any of his efforts. We see this effort as a rollback of the Human Rights Act in Minnesota,” which was passed in 1993.

Meyer added that the main street baker doesn’t have to support the decision of a same-sex couple choosing to marry, but he or she does have an obligation to treat all customers equally. It’s the law.

Over and over, Gazelka insisted that though he supported the 2012 amendment that would have restricted marriage to one man, one woman — and though he voted against the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2013 — this bill is “not an anti-gay marriage bill.’’ He also said this is a bill aimed strictly at services surrounding marriage.

It was an event in his district, he said, that made this an issue for him. A Catholic couple, he said, has a venue that it rents out for marriage ceremonies. But when a gay couple wanted to use the venue, the couple said “no,’’ citing deep religious convictions. 

“The hammer of government was dropped on them,’’ said Gazelka, adding that the couple that refused to hold the ceremony ended up paying $9,000 in restitution and legal fees. No word whether other gay couples have attempted to use the facility.

In his mind, the bill would not impact other issues surrounding religious beliefs and public accommodation. For example, in 2006, Muslim cab drivers at the Twin Cities International Airport were refusing, in some cases, to transport customers who were carrying alcohol, claiming that it was a violation of their religious convictions. In 2008, they lost their case in court on a number of technical grounds. Around the same time, there were instances of pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for such things as birth control pills or so-called morning-after pills to customers, claiming to do so would violate religious convictions. The outcome of the pharmacy cases has been muddled and laws vary from state to state.

Gazelka said he hadn’t considered those cases in putting together his bill.

State Sen. Warren Limmer
State Sen. Warren Limmer

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, was standing next to Gazelka at the media event.  Limmer was a main force behind the successful effort to get the marriage amendment on the ballot in 2012. The amendment not only failed, it likely sped up the process of legalizing same-sex marriage in Minnesota. 

Limmer said he has no regrets about pushing the amendment. He agrees that times are changing, and that the issue is becoming less important to growing numbers of Minnesotans. In his work as a Realtor, Limmer said he’s happy to serve gay couples. But he applauds Gazelka’s effort.

“I think he’s doing the right thing,’’ Limmer said. “Can people of faith gently step away from a new paradigm.’’

But OutFront’s Meyer said there’s no stepping away from civil rights.

“To step back really would go against what was in the hearts of the people of Minnesota,’’ Meyer said. “People in this state said clearly that all of us should be able to love who we want to love.’’