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States Plan Renewed Debate On LGBT Rights, Religious Freedom

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Daylina Miller/Health News Florida
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

With same-sex marriage now legal nationwide, lawmakers in numerous states are preparing for a new round of battles in 2016 over whether to grant discrimination protections to LGBT people or religious exemptions to nonprofits and businesses that object to gay marriage.

This includes a push by the ACLU to expand the list of places barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It's targeting at least a half dozen states — Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — that have Republican-led legislatures and also may be pivotal in presidential elections.

The tussle over civil rights and religious freedoms is one of several hot-button issues that could drive states in opposite policy directions, as lawmakers seek to appeal to voters during a year in which more than 5,800 state legislative seats will be up for election.

Republicans hold majorities in two-thirds of the states' legislative chambers, meaning they get to set the agenda. Those priorities could include attempts to exempt businesses from providing wedding-related services to gay couples, expand gun rights and further restrictions on abortions.

Democrats, meanwhile, will likely be pushing in the opposite direction.

"What we've got is division," said William Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

He predicts there will be a "significant number of bills" seeking to advance either religious rights or the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

"You've got the Democratic states reacting very differently, a lot of the time, than the Republican states to these issues," Pound said.

Those potentially divisive debates will be playing out as legislators also struggle with some traditionally difficult financial issues, such as budget shortfalls and calls to boost funding for public schools and infrastructure. Education issues are expected to be at the forefront in more than a third of the states, according to an analysis by Associated Press statehouse reporters around the country.

At least 10 states might consider new revenue for transportation in 2016, building on a trend in which at least half the states already have acted in the past several years.

States that rely heavily on the energy industry for tax income, such as Alaska, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming, are taking big budget hits due to falling oil, natural gas and coal revenue. But tax cuts could be on the agenda in more than a half-dozen other states, including Arizona, Florida and Maine.

States' general revenues are expected to grow by about 2.5 percent in 2016, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. As they prepare their next budgets, "states are still going to be very pinched" to meet rising costs for K-12 schools, Medicaid and core services, said David Adkins, executive director and chief executive of The Council of State Governments.

Added to the mix will be several emerging issues, such as how to quell a rise in opiate addictions and overdoses, and whether to extend regulations to online fantasy sports and to individuals renting rides or lodging through the "sharing economy."

Some states also will be wrestling with unique local issues, including flood recovery in South Carolina, whether to keep the Confederate emblem on the Mississippi flag, as well as ethics overhauls following political scandals in New York, Missouri and New Mexico.

Influential national groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Family Research Council are preparing for a new round of legislative debates after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that states must allow same-sex marriage. Their focus now is on the effect of that ruling.

There are 22 states with laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and 21 with laws limiting the government's ability to burden the free exercise of religion. But just four states — Connecticut, Rhode Island, Illinois and New Mexico — have both.

The ACLU will be seeking to expand the list of places barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It's targeting at least a half dozen states — Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — that have Republican-led legislatures and also may be pivotal in presidential elections.

The Supreme Court's decision "certainly provides momentum on the issue," said Pennsylvania Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat from the Pittsburgh area who has been unsuccessfully sponsoring gay rights bills for more than a decade.

He said challenges remain and pointed to a November referendum in which Houston voters rejected a city ordinance extending nondiscrimination protections to gay and transgender people.

The Family Research Council, which opposed the Houston ordinance, is supporting state measures that would grant broad protections "from government discrimination" against people "who have a sincere belief — religious or not — in natural marriage," said Quena Gonzalez, the group's director of state and local affairs.

Missouri House Majority Leader Mike Cierpiot said many of his Republican colleagues were alarmed by the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.

"I think there's a lot of states that are looking at this and seeing what can be done to make sure that religious freedoms are respected," said Cierpiot, a Republican from suburban Kansas City.

An intense debate over gay rights already is shaping up in Indiana, where a religious-rights law passed last spring thrust the state into the national spotlight over concerns it could sanction discrimination against gays and lesbians. A coalition of 150 businesses is backing legislation to ban discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.

An LGBT rights proposal outlined by Indiana Senate Republicans would grant broad exceptions intended to protect small business owners and religious schools, nonprofits and adoption agencies. For example, a wedding-related business with fewer than four employees could refuse to do work for a same-sex marriage.

Other issues that made headlines in 2015 also are expected to lead legislative agendas in the new year:

— Lawmakers in several states are seeking to expand gun rights, citing a need for self-defense following a spate of mass shootings in San Bernardino, California, a community college in Oregon, a historically black church in South Carolina and a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado.

States such as Florida, South Dakota and West Virginia are among those considering bills allowing concealed guns on college campuses or dropping requirements for a government permit to carry concealed weapons.

Stricter gun controls are being discussed in California, Illinois and New York, including measures that would prohibit firearm sales to people on government no-fly lists or terrorist watch lists.

— A battle over funding for Planned Parenthood — and a renewed push for additional abortion restrictions is expected in response to undercover videos released last summer showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing aborted fetal body parts.

Ohio Right to Life has an aggressive agenda, including a 20-week abortion ban, a prohibition on ending pregnancies involving a Down Syndrome diagnosis and the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Republican-led legislatures in Arizona, Idaho, Missouri, South Dakota and Utah also are among the places pushing greater restrictions on abortion and Planned Parenthood.

In Colorado, where a gunman killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in November, the Democratic-led House could consider increasing the state's protest buffer around abortion clinics. But Republican senators may try to defund Planned Parenthood, citing the fetal body part videos.

— Some states, responding to police shootings of citizens that prompted widespread protests, plan to try again in 2016 to set policies for the use of police body cameras and new procedures for investigating police shootings.

Several states are considering comprehensive sentencing changes, such as prison alternatives for non-violent offenders. More states also are expected to debate bills relaxing laws against marijuana, either by revoking criminal penalties or allowing for its medicinal use.