Rep. Duane Quam's lonely crusade to protect business owners from LGBTQ customers

Duane Quam believes in discrimination if it has the approval of God.

Duane Quam believes in discrimination if it has the approval of God. Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

It's back.

For the second time in as many years, Rep. Duane Quam (R-Byron) has introduced an "exemption for religious beliefs" bill. The proposal would annul language in the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which prohibits employers, landlords, and businesses from treating people differently because they belong to a certain group or “protected class.” The 13 various classes include religion, race, and sexual orientation. 

Quam's legislation allows business owners to be exempted from lawsuits and criminal penalties if, say, they turned away gay customers because their sexual orientation ran counter to the proprietor's religious convictions. 

Think of it as a return to the Old South, when businesses could discriminate against black customers because God had decreed them inferior. 

Quam's bill reads much like Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That 2015 law allows business owners to use their beliefs as a defense when sued. Universally panned as anti-gay, the measure cost the state tens of millions of dollars in lost business.

Which means nothing to the Minnesota lawmaker, who represents a southeastern district that includes portions of Dodge and Olmsted counties.

"There's a big difference between saying a person cannot do something versus saying a person must do something," Quam tells City Pages. "… This is a discussion about the base principle of what can government make, force you to do."  

Hardly, others counter. Among them are officials from OutFront Minnesota and Stonewall DFL, which works to elect members of the LGBTQ community to public office. They argue the bill would codify discrimination, with repercussions that go far behind business conduct based upon religious beliefs.

"Are we prepared to allow a pharmacist to refuse to sell birth control on the basis of religious beliefs?" writes Stonewall Chair Del Jenkins. "Counselors to withhold help from people they deem to be sinful? Religiously affiliated schools to fire unmarried teachers who become pregnant?" 

Quam's optics aren't so panoramic, although his bill's language is intentionally broad. It would protect any and all "for refusing to provide a service, or refusing to allow the use of property or facilities for any activity that is prohibited by or is against… sincerely held religious beliefs."   

The bill's author says it would serve as a counterbalance protection. While Quam can't come up with an example, he asserts that all too often individuals wanting to make a political point seek out business owners who carry strong religious beliefs.  

"Why would a same-sex couple getting married choose a wedding photographer they know has religious beliefs that go against their sexual orientation, as opposed to finding a business that helps them celebrate the event?" asks Quam. "They've probably got lots of options. Instead of finding one with commonality, they go to the owner they know will have a problem with it."     

Quam is Cautiously optimistic on the prospects this second go-around.

"It depends," he says, "on how willing people are to have an open and honest dialogue on a controversial topic."

During last year's session, the bill was referred to the Civil Law and Data Practices Committee. That's where it died. 2017's version reads identical to its predecessor and has already been shipped to the same committee.