Religious freedom or discrimination? Tensions rise over ‘Right of Conscience Act’

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

OKLAHOMA CITY - The tension and rhetoric escalated Tuesday, as a bill that would allow some businesses to deny services passed a senate committee.

Senate Bill 197, known as the 'Oklahoma Right of Conscience Act,' would permit businesses to deny services to those whose marriage, lifestyle or behavior is at odds with an individual’s sincerely-held religious beliefs.

Supporters and opponents accused each other of being "un-American."

"You cannot say 'I am open for business to the public, but I will not serve you because of the way you look; I won't serve you because of the color of your skin; I won't serve you because of who you love,'" said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma. "That is not American, and that is not the Oklahoma Standard."

But, Sen. Joseph Silk (R-Broken Bow) said his bill is merely protecting individual liberties.

"It makes me very concerned about our state and the people who are active in our state if they don't think that an individual should have a right to our conscience," he said. "That really concerns me because, if you believe that, we're right there with communist Russia. In the United States, we believe in individual liberties and the unique individuality and, if you don't think people have that right, there's a big issue. And, anybody who does oppose this legislation, I have very, very grave concerns about."

Freedom Oklahoma, which promotes LGBT issues, held a press conference directly outside Silk's office, trying to sound an alarm, after the judiciary committee passed the bill 7-4.

"I think this is the most broad piece of discriminatory legislation that this country has seen in generations," Stevenson said. "Make no mistake: it is a biased bill coming from a religious zealot targeting the LGBT community. I promise you, as of right now, if this bill goes forward, Oklahoma is closed for business."

Stevenson worries about the adverse effect the bill might have on Oklahoma companies, a position consistent with the State Chamber of Oklahoma, which told NewsChannel 4 in a statement last month it had concerns about the bill.

But, Silk said his legislation arose out of conversations he had with prospective entrepreneurs, who feel threatened by potential lawsuits.

"We don't have a constitutional right to behave however we want and live however we want and be served in the private sector," Silk said. "It's a sad time in our state when we have entrepreneurs who are reluctant to go into business because they're scared of litigation from the state on protecting specific behaviors."

Freedom Oklahoma has promised a lawsuit if the bill becomes law, less than one week after a Washington State Supreme Court sided with a same-sex couple over a florist that declined to provide flowers.

Bakeries and florists contacted by NewsChannel 4 largely declined to comment, out of fear of retribution from either side.

But, Oklahoma City Florist Tony Foss said the bill's passage or failure really has no impact on his business.

"They're buying flowers," he said. "And, who am I to say what's right or wrong? I think love is love. And, if two girls or two guys fall in love and want to get married, I'm their florist."

"I'm trying to make a day of beauty with my flowers," he said. "My opinion is none of their business."

Silk said he can't understand the uproar either.

"The fuss, I don't really understand it, because it benefits everybody," he said. "It benefits the business community, it benefits all lifestyles, so I don't understand it."