A bill intended to stop Oklahoma cities and counties from passing ordinances against discrimination revealed a divide between rural and urban senators Monday.
Senate Bill 694 by Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate, would prohibit cities from passing certain types of ordinances that punish discrimination toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Urban and suburban senators from both parties voted against sending the bill back to the floor of the Oklahoma Senate. But, the bill received just enough votes to make it out of committee.
Brecheen said that there is a need for “uniformity” of laws so that businesses can know what to expect statewide.
But Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, strongly opposed the measure.
He described it as “the most sweeping and broad repudiation of local control that I have ever seen this legislature consider in my seven years here.”
The senators from urban and suburban areas were skeptical about Brecheen’s argument.
Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, asked several pointed questions revealing her central argument about preemption legislation.
After asking a series of questions that pointed to residents of cities electing their city councils and county residents electing their commissioners, Floyd posed these questions:
So why would this body interfere with the will of the people in their elections of city councils, and rural people in the elections of their county commissioners? They have control to remove those people if they so choose if decisions are made that do not reflect what they want? Why would we take local control away from them?
Brecheen answered that when cities pass ordinances that prohibit businesses from refusing service, they are “in contradiction and in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”
“Why can’t shop owners who don’t want to serve certain people just put a sign on their window?” asked Sen. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City. She asked several ways why it was that a business owner could not post some sort of signage that clearly gave their intent. Then “people could decide if they wanted to do business there.”
Urban and suburban senators were clear about their reluctance to pass further preemptive legislation when it came time to vote. And their party affiliation didn’t seem to matter.
Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, said she had “grave concerns about communities losing control,” and so she would vote against the measure.
The most decisive and clear statement against the measure came during debate from Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City.
“The words on these pages are the most sweeping and broad repudiation of local control that I have ever seen this legislature consider in my seven years here,” said Holt.
“I am not prepared today to set aside my core principals and so I will be voting no and would encourage others to do so as well.”
After adjournment, Holt told Free Press that his opposition to the bill was based upon “core conservative principals.”
“Conservatives like me have always believed that the best power is utilized as low as you can possibly push it,” said Holt. “I’m unaware of any process that is broken that would require us to take power back from the cities.”
Brecheen’s argument included ideology that matches a conservative push across the nation for Republican controlled legislatures to reign in cities on several culture issues.
He said concerns for the “religious liberty” of business owners who have a “sincerely held religious belief” are what caused him to introduce the bill.
Brecheen said he is being “proactive” in wanting the state to pre-empt cities from passing certain types of anti-discrimination ordinances designed to protect LGBT people.
He also cited Oklahoma’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2015, stating that the “religious liberty” of store owners and service providers is being violated if cities pass ordinances that prohibit them from denying service to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
He argued that when cities pass ordinances that stop discrimination by businesses based on religious grounds, they are “in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”
That act prohibits legal actions under state or local law against people in certain businesses who refuse to do business with someone because they disagree with a potential customer’s lifestyle or beliefs.
Two leaders of LGBT activist groups told Free Press after the meeting that they were disappointed that the bill got out of committee.
“Senators like Brecheen buck every time the federal government tells Oklahoma what to do and he wants to strip the ability of municipal government away to do exactly the same thing,” said Troy Stevenson with Freedom Oklahoma. “It’s hypocrisy. Blatant hypocrisy!”
And the Toby Jenkins, executive director of Oklahoman’s for Equality said that Brecheen had misrepresented the vote for an ordinance in the Tulsa City Council in April 2015.
He said their council voted “one hundred percent” for an ordinance that would prohibit housing discrimination against someone “based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Jenkins said Tulsa’s city council is made up of “predominantly Republicans” and their mayor at the time, Dewey F. Bartlett, Jr. is also a Republican and voted for the bill, too.