‘Religious Freedom’ Bill Sponsor Urges House Leaders to Override Gubernatorial Veto

Kentucky Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, is urging fellow Democrats in the state House to override Governor Steve Beshear’s veto of the so-called ‘religious freedom’ bill.

The governor blocked the legislation Friday after tremendous pressure to reject the measure, which would allow residents to ignore any laws or regulations that violate tenets of their faith.

Opponents included a wide range of social justice groups, state organizations and public officials such as Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who argued House Bill 279 was too vague and could threaten civil rights protections for racial minorities, women and LGBT residents.

Beshear says religious freedom is a cornerstone of American democracy and important to Kentuckians, but the bill’s vague language would be problematic and expensive.

“I have serious concerns that this bill will cause unintentional consequences that could threaten public safety, health care and individual civil rights. As written, the bill will undoubtedly lead to costly litigation,” he says. “I’ve heard from many organizations and governmental entities that share these same concerns. Therefore, after giving this measure thoughtful analysis and consideration, today I vetoed the bill.”

Damron is the original sponsor of the bill, which passed the General Assembly by overwhelming margins in both chambers. In the Democratic-run House, the legislation received a 82-7 vote including the backing of House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and other leaders.

For opponents and supporters, attention now turns to lobbying House Democrats to either reject or accept the veto.

“The governor told me he wasn’t going to try to force people to sustain the veto,” says Damron. “And all the members of the House leadership voted for HB 279 to begin with, and some of them are co-sponsors. The House will override the veto. The only way they won’t is if we’re not given the opportunity to vote on Monday.”

Opponents of the bill praised Beshear’s “bold action” and hope that lawmakers in the House will uphold his decisions.

“With the myriad of concerns and questions that have been raised over the past several weeks, we strongly urge the Kentucky legislature to allow Governor Beshear’s veto to stand,” says ACLU of Kentucky Executive Director Michael Aldridge.  “This would allow lawmakers another year to reach a compromise that would ensure the proper balance between individuals’ religious freedom and others’ civil rights protections.”

The final two days of the short session are scheduled to convene early next week. It takes a majority vote in both chambers to revoke Beshear’s veto, and leaders in GOP-controlled Senate have indicated they are prepared to override Beshear’s veto if the House acts.

Those in favor of the “religious freedom” bill—such as Damron—warn this decision could backfire on Democrats in the upcoming 2014 state House elections.

“We as Democrats in Kentucky have always stated that we are different than the national party. We believe in God. We believe in the Second Amendment. We believe in strong individual rights,” says Damron. “We are a bit more conservative, and actually more Democrats voted for in the House than there were Republicans who voted for the bill. There’s a strong case for us to back this bill.”

Others say Beshear simply caved to special interest groups who lobbied for a veto.

“I don’t think it will be comforting for many Kentuckians to know the ACLU is now calling the shots in  the governor’s office,” says Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst with the Family Foundation. “This puts churches around the Commonwealth on notice that the First Amendment they thought their government respected may now be negotiable.”

Speaker Stumbo’s office has not yet responded to our request for comment.

UPDATE: In a one sentence response, Stumbo said House leaders “will be discussing what action to take with our caucus.”

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