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

The battle over religious freedom and LGBT rights has moved from Arizona and Mississippi to Missouri. Conservatives there are backing an amendment to the state Constitution that would protect certain people — clergy, for instance — who refuse to take part in same-sex marriages.

But the measure has run into some unexpected — and unexpectedly stiff — opposition, from a longtime ally of the religious right: the business community.

Supporters of the proposal are pulling out all the stops.

An enthusiastic crowd filled the rotunda of the Missouri Statehouse this week, pledging to fight back against what they see as an assault on long-held religious beliefs.

Missouri Baptist Convention Executive 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 same-sex marriage, something they find morally wrong.

"You would think that SJR 39 would be a common-sense no-brainer," he told the cheering crowd.

But where Yeats sees a threat to "religious liberty," Joe Reardon sees a threat to commerce.

"We're talking about profitability; we're talking about jobs," says Reardon, who runs the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

The biggest business groups in the state have locked arms against the amendment, Reardon says. Hundreds of individual businesses have piled on.

"It's every sort of business in Kansas City coming together in common cause around this. And that's been remarkable to me," he says.

Some of the 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.

"It's a phenomenal shift, and it's incredible to see it happen so quickly," Hinds says.

It's not so hard to see what business leaders are worried about. Mark Fisher with the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce says the city lost at least $60 million in convention business when his state passed a Religious Freedom Act last year.

"We all need to realize that social issues are economic issues now," Fisher says.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, scaled back the law just one week after signing it. But not quickly enough, according to Fisher.

"This can be a defining brand, or a defining image for your city, and how will that affect your ability to attract and retain talent?" he says.

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 is funding Republican congressional candidates this year at more than three times the level it is giving to Democrats.

But Monsanto lobbyist Duane Simpson says recruiting and keeping world-class researchers is hard enough now.

"We're just asking legislators not to make our job more difficult, by making the state appear unwelcoming," Simpson says.

And if a place is perceived as unwelcoming to conventions and business talent, the typical tourist may shun it as well.

David Epstein co-owns 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. He calls the amendment an existential threat.

"The religious freedom bill, which I think is so misnamed, would decimate us," Epstein says.

This level of alarm from business — in Missouri — comes as something of a shock. State Sen. Bob Onder, who wrote the religious protection legislation, says corporate opposition materialized just since mid-February.

"When I presented this bill in committee in the state Senate, not a single business lobbyist came to testify against my bill," Onder says.

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

"We've been on the same side of issues for so many times for so long," says Hinkle, the MBC's director of public policy. "And for them to think that our freedom is for sale, much less the gospel of Jesus Christ is for sale, to us ... it's heartbreaking."

So an amendment that passed overwhelmingly in the Missouri Senate now seems to be stalled in the state 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.