Herald-Leader Editorial

Bill could create chaos, not liberty; 'religious freedom' already protected

'Religious freedom' already protected

March 5, 2013 

No sooner had a "religious freedom restoration act" sailed through the state House last week than Internet commentators started hailing it as a victory for Kentucky's Rastas and their sacrament of marijuana use.

The online sages were blowing smoke, but it's not at all clear what unanticipated consequences House Bill 279 could have if it becomes law.

Critics say the legislation, which strengthens people's ability to disobey state laws on religious grounds, would undermine vital public protections, by, for example, making it easier for parents to withhold lifesaving medical treatment from children on religious grounds.

The bill could make it harder to pursue criminal prosecutions and civil remedies in everything from child abuse to housing discrimination when a religious defense is invoked.

It also could undermine civil rights protections in Lexington, Louisville, Covington and Vicco — the four Kentucky cities that have prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Senate should slow down this train and study the effects in the 13 states that have enacted such laws.

Another concern is whether the legislation violates the Kentucky Constitution, and the cost to taxpayers of defending it.

Last year the Senate tried to enact the same provisions in the form of an amendment to the state Constitution. If enacting the new standards required a constitutional amendment last year, how can they be enacted by a mere change in the law this year?

Indeed, the Kentucky Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that the Kentucky Constitution allowed the state to require reflective signs on all slow-moving vehicles, despite objections by some Amish buggy drivers that the bright orange triangles violated their religious beliefs.

If HB 279 had been the law then, the state could not have enforced the safety requirement on the Amish, according to the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville.

In the end, the dispute was settled through a legislative compromise that allowed the Amish to use reflective tape instead of the orange triangles to warn motorists on winding rural roads.

Everyone came away satisfied, which suggests the balance between religious freedom and compelling public interest is already where it needs to be in Kentucky.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects against religious persecution and discrimination, and, frankly, it's hard to see the Kentucky legislature improving on it.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service