Will Kentucky ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill Gut Protections for Women, Minorities and Gay Residents?

Joining other civil rights group, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights is urging Governor Steve Beshear to block a bill that would allow people to ignore laws and regulations violating their religious beliefs.

Last week, the Democratic-controlled House overwhelmingly approved HB 279 by an 82-7 vote. It has now moved on the state Senate, where observers predict it is likely to pass in the GOP-controlled chamber.

Supporters say the bill strengthens the rights for people of faith and clarifies religious freedom in state law. But civil rights groups such as the ACLU of Kentucky and Louisville Fairness Campaign argue it will gut protections for women, racial minorities and gay residents.

John Johnson, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, tells WFPL the commission agrees “wholeheartedly” with civil rights proponents, adding there is a potential risk for people to use their faith to discriminate.

“If this bill is adopted people can hide behind religious freedoms and discriminate in anyway they feel. They could say based on my religion I don’t think I should serve people based on interracial marriage. I don’t believe I should serve people because they are of a different religion,” he says. “People can hide behind it in anyway, and it just makes it more difficult for the human rights agencies to pursue equality in our state.”

Johnson says he understands the need to protect faith inherent in the bill, but is calling on the governor to block the measure.

A Beshear spokesperson told WFPL they are monitoring the bill’s progress, “and if it reaches the governor’s desk, (Beshear) will review it thoroughly to weigh its impact and understand any potential unintended consequences.”

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.

During this year’s legislative session, state Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, introduced the measure. He says opponents are misleading the public about the proposal.

Asked about the push for a veto, Damron told the radio station he remains confident Beshear won’t use that authority.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt we have adequate votes to override a gubernatorial veto,” he says. “But I don’t think the governor is going to veto it because he and his legal staff will be able to see beyond the ramblings of the ultra-left in this state. And really he will understand it’s not the bogeyman that they seem to think that it is.”

Civil rights leaders, however, argue it provides a new legal defense to ignore laws and regulations. Specifically, if a person disagrees morally with local Fairness ordinances protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered residents.

Lobbyists with the Catholic Church have vocally backed HB 279 in Frankfort, citing the erosion of faith in the public square and infringement on religious beliefs from the government. Those behind the bill say it has passed in 13 other states and deny that its motivation is to subvert existing anti-discrimination laws.

“We don’t share that concern and we don’t think that’s accurate,” says the Rev. Patrick Delahanty, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. “If that were the case you’d think there would be some instances in which people can demonstrate where that’s happened. But I don’t know of any cases of where that has happened, and so I’m not inclined to think it will happen in Kentucky.”

But lobbyists with the ACLU and gay rights movement say they have brought specific examples to Rep. Damron and Delahanty’s attention on how similar state laws were used to undermine civil rights.

“We have shared with the proponents of the law cases in which laws like this have been allowed in the courts to subvert to civil rights protections,” says Louisville Fairness Campaign Director Chris Hartman. “To claim that it doesn’t or hasn’t in the past is once again an abandonment of the facts.”

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