Local News
12:48 am
Fri March 8, 2013

Kentucky 'Religious Freedom' Bill Goes to Beshear, Critics Warn It May Gut Civil Rights Protections

After a lengthy partisan battle that lasted hours into the night, a bill that would allow Kentuckians to ignore laws that they say violate their religious beliefs cleared the state Senate.

Sen. Neal
Credit Rae Hodge / WFPL News

Supporters say the "Religious Freedom Act" sponsored by Rep. Robert Damron, D-Nicholasville, would protect religion from government encroachment. WFPL's Phillip Bailey reported earlier this week:

The push for the law originates with a backlash against a provision in President Obama's health care law over a mandate that requires religious run institutions and businesses to insure contraceptives. In lawsuits and legislation, conservative activists have said that violates the First Amendment, and it is an ongoing legal and political fight in Washington.

But various civil liberties groups say it could allow landlords and employers to use their religious beliefs to justify discrimination against employees or tenants on the grounds of race, sexual orientation, or gender.

A growing number of cities in Kentucky, have ordinances barring discriminatory practices by landlords and employers. Most recently, the small eastern Kentucky town of Vicco gained national attention as the smallest town in the U.S. to pass a fairness ordinance.

Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, spoke at length against the measure. She believes the bill will undermine Lexington's fair housing ordinance.

“We shouldn't even be talking about it,” she says. “We should not even be considering this, it violates section V of our constitution. We took an oath to uphold it, remember? We took an oath to uphold this constitution, we didn't take an oath to be re-elected.”

Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, also spoke against the measure. Neal said the bill would make minority constituents vulnerable to civil rights violations, should an employer or landlord cite religious reasons for discriminating against African Americans.

"I don't question a motive with respect to this but it happens all the time that we have our eyes open and we know, due to our history, and those things that have happened and continue to happen in this society that we can just about expect those unintended consequences,” he said.

Sen. Stein
Credit Rae Hodge / WFPL News

 The bill has now passed out of both chambers of the Kentucky General Assembly and awaits action from Gov. Steve Behshear. A Beshear spokesperson recently told WFPL the governor “will review [the bill] thoroughly to weigh its impact and understand any potential unintended consequences” when it reaches his desk.