Photo: State Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, unveils his 'Freedom of Conscience' legislation. He is flanked by Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, and Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg.
State Sen. Paul Gazelka on Thursday unveiled a “Freedom of Conscience” bill that would allow some businesses to refuse marriage-related services to same-sex couples based on their religious beliefs, but maintains it's intended to compromise, not discriminate.
Gazelka, R-Nisswa, whose proposal comes in the waning weeks of the session, said he knows it won't pass this year. He called the bill’s specific language “a surgical approach” by pertaining only to weddings. The language states that no clergy member or business must provide goods or services “if that action would cause the individual or business to violate a sincerely held belief regarding whether marriage is only the union of one man or one woman.”
The bill only applies to businesses with 20 or fewer employees, and businesses may not refuse service if it presents “substantial hardship” to potential customers.
Gazelka, who co-sponsored a failed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota, and voted against legalizing same-sex marriage the following year, maintains that his bill is not intended to discriminate against gays and lesbians, or end same-sex marriage. He said that he has long believed that gays and lesbians should be able to live as they choose.
“Now I’m simply asking that Christians and people of faith be able to live as they choose, without the threat of punishment from the government.” He said.
Gazelka referenced a 2014 case where Rice Creek Lodge refused to rent a lodge for a wedding service to a gay couple, and following a complaint and settlement through the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, agreed to pick up the tab for the wedding and reception they initially turned away.
“I don’t think that’s right,” Gazelka said. “It’s not right to deny anyone services simply because of who they are, but it’s also not right to force someone to celebrate a gay wedding if they think it’s wrong. These opposing worldviews have crashed head-on, and the only way for our dividing culture to move forward is for both sides to live as they please. Both sides have to leave a little room for the other side to disagree.”
Gazelka said he has reached out to the gay community, including GLBT advocacy organization OutFront Minnesota, but has not received support.
“They have an open door to my office, they always will,” he said. “I think they recognized the problem but are not supportive of the solution.”
OutFront Executive Director Monica Meyer said that although the organization appreciates Gazelka’s open door policy, the majority of Minnesotans have expressed support for same-sex marriage.
“We realize there are some people who don’t,” she said. “Commercial business owners don’t have to support the decisions of their customers, but we just know that our country works best when nobody is discriminated against, and we’re not actually providing these legal avenues for discrimination.”
On the other side, Gazelka said he consulted with conservative groups like the Minnesota Family Council, but said he intentionally didn’t want them around as he unveiled the bill “because we want to bring both sides together.” He said they support the bill, although they may want something more broad.
Gazelka co-authored the bill with Republican Sens. Warren Limmer of Maple Grove, Michelle Benson, of Ham Lake, Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake and Dan Hall of Burnsville. Gazelka said he reached out to his DFL counterparts, and said that while some were supportive, none were willing to put their names on the bill. Republican Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, said he supports the measure, but has decided not to file a companion bill because he’s interested in a conversation starter, but “dropping a bill at this time was not in my interests.”
Both Gazelka and Miller said their respective leaderships were aware of the bill, and while not actively supporting it, they weren’t actively opposed either.
The bill comes in the wake of Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which drew backlash from across the country, including Minnesota, after it purported to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Indiana’s governor since amended the bill.
Gazelka said his bill is unique from other controversial bills because it is marriage-focused, where he said he sees the most conflict. Gazelka said he doesn’t know whether his bill would clash with Minnesota’s Human Rights law. Although state law provides exemptions for religious entities, businesses are not exempt.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said he’s not overly concerned about the bill, but called it an “unfortunate distraction” as the session wraps up.
“When you offer services to the public, you offer them to everyone,” Dibble said. “I don’t know why we would give some businesses the ability to thumb their nose at the law and treat people differently.”
Staff writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.