TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas' governor told state government agencies Tuesday that they can't punish ministers or religious groups for opposing same-sex marriage, and critics said he is sanctioning discrimination even as the state extends new benefits to gay and lesbian couples.
Gov. Sam Brownback issued an executive order in response to last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the nation. Brownback's order said the "imposition" of gay marriage could lead to "potential infringements" of religious liberties.
The conservative Republican governor's action is designed to shield churches, clergy, religious leaders and religious groups refusing to perform same-sex weddings or provide goods, services or accommodations for them. The order includes religious organizations providing social services for the state and prevents state agencies from altering contracts, changing a group's tax-exempt status or denying grants, loans, licenses or accreditation.
Kansas had banned same-sex marriage and refused to recognize such unions from other states. Brownback has been a vocal supporter of those policies, which were bolstered by an amendment to the state constitution approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2005.
Brownback issued his order hours after his administration said it is allowing married gays and lesbians to change their names on their driver's licenses and permitting the health insurance plan for state workers to offer coverage to same-sex spouses.
"We have a duty to govern and to govern in accordance with the Constitution as it has been determined by the Supreme Court decision," Brownback said in a statement. "We also recognize that religious liberty is at the heart of who we are as Kansans and Americans, and should be protected."
In addition to religious liberty protections in the U.S. and state constitutions, a 2013 Kansas law says state or local agencies can't substantially limit someone's exercise of religion without a compelling reason. The statute allows lawsuits to challenge government actions.
Critics of Brownback's order said clergy and churches already are protected from being forced to perform marriages outside their faith traditions without it.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the order an "extreme" overreaction to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Lynn said the order allows "naked discrimination" against gays and lesbians by state contractors providing adoption and foster care services or operating homeless shelters.
Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the state's leading gay-rights group, said: "Gov. Brownback is looking for ways to treat gay and lesbian Kansans as second-class citizens."
Brownback in February rescinded an executive order issued in 2007 by then-Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in state hiring and employment decisions, saying the Legislature should approve such a policy. He said last week that he might propose a new religious objections law for legislators to consider next year.
The state's four Catholic bishops issued a statement urging state officials to make new legal protections for same-sex marriage opponents a top priority in coming months. They praised Brownback's order.
"Generations of Americans have taken freedom of conscience for granted," the Catholic bishops said in their statement. "We, sadly, do not have that luxury anymore."
Witt had criticized Brownback for saying last week that his administration was reviewing the ramifications of the U.S. Supreme Court's June 26 decision before making policy changes. As of last week, court clerks in all 105 counties were granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The state employees' health plan began taking applications Tuesday from married gay and lesbian workers seeking coverage for their spouses, opening a special, 31-day enrollment period. State driver's license offices allowed married gay and lesbian couples to change their licenses as of Monday.
But the state Department of Revenue is not yet allowing married same-sex couples to file joint income tax returns, and the Department for Children and Families is reviewing adoption policies that allow gays and lesbians to adopt children in state custody as individuals, but not as couples.
Brownback's executive order: http://1.usa.gov/1S6zNbj
Kansas state employees' health plan: http://www.kdheks.gov/hcf/sehp/
Kansas Department of Revenue: http://www.ksrevenue.org/
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