Herald-Leader Editorial

Beshear's veto showed integrity

But political fear ruled legislature

March 29, 2013 

Gov. Steve Beshear did the right thing last week when he vetoed House Bill 279, the so-called religious freedom bill.

The two houses of the General Assembly did the wrong thing this week when they overrode that veto.

The new law is only one paragraph but it could wind up costing the state a ton of money to defend in court, while accomplishing nothing to extend freedom of any kind. Talk about waste in government.

Beshear's veto message said the bill is so vague that it "creates impermissible uncertainty . . . as to the boundaries of existing laws." He went on to note that "citizens are constitutionally entitled to clarity in the law."

You'd think that people who write the laws, many of them lawyers themselves, could understand and respect that reasonable argument.

No doubt they did but they understood even more the political terror of facing an opponent who could accuse them of voting against something purporting to defend religious freedom.

The fundamental flaw in HB 279 is that it enables individuals to break laws at will so long as they claim that in doing so they are "motivated by sincerely held religious belief." Under the law, instead of an individual shouldering the responsibility to prove that his or her beliefs are "sincerely held," and therefore justify whatever action taken on their behalf, the government bears the burden of disproving the sincerity of that belief. Or the government must prove that there is a compelling public interest in restricting the religiously-inspired action.

To take just one example of where this could cause nightmares, consider county jails. Individuals held in them could assert that their religions don't allow them to be housed with people of the same sex, or of different religions or on some day of the week. Or, they could assert that their religious beliefs demand special diets or clothing. In every case, it would be the county's legal obligation to prove those beliefs aren't sincere or establish that there is a compelling public interest for not honoring them, or else meet the person's demands.

This nightmare scenario contributed to the long, long list of individuals and organizations that encouraged Beshear to veto HB 279. It included the Kentucky County Judge/Executive Association, the Kentucky League of Cities, the Kentucky Education Association, the National Association of Social Workers-Kentucky Chapter and many churches and individual public officials.

Beshear said Wednesday that he was also concerned the law might discourage employers considering a move to Kentucky.

"In effect, HB 279 makes each person a law unto themselves," the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights wrote Beshear, urging him to veto the measure.

Religious freedom has been a fundamental right in our country since its founding, enshrined in both the U.S. and the Kentucky constitutions. It has allowed people of every faith to live, work and worship peacefully together in this country for more than 200 years.

As a result, HB 279 would have been at best duplicative and therefore unnecessary.

But, thanks to political expediency and cowardice, it became law and now cities, counties, state government and school districts can expect a barrage of complaints and lawsuits.

Only six senators voted to support Beshear's veto, including Kathy Stein, D-Lexington. There were very few profiles of courage in the House, either, where only 15 members voted to uphold the veto, including Jesse Crenshaw, Kelly Flood, Ruth Ann Palumbo and Susan Westrom, also D-Lexington, and Carl Rollins, D-Midway.

Taking the easy route — for their careers not the commonwealth — were the rest of the Fayette County delegation: Reps. Robert Benvenuti, Robert Damron (the main sponsor), Stan Lee, Sannie Overly and Ryan Quarles; Sens. Tom Buford and Julian Carroll and Alice Forgy Kerr.

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