Tom Eblen: Parsing Gray's tepid response to 'religious freedom' bill

teblen@herald-leader.comMarch 30, 2013 

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray delivered his 2013 State of the Merged Government address during a noontime meeting of the Lexington Forum held in the Patterson Ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, January 22, 2013. The mayor's annual address represents the condition of city government: "where we have been, where we are going," Gray said during an earlier press briefing. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff

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Kentucky's new "religious freedom" law sure looks like an attempt by conservative Christians to justify discrimination against gay people and get around local "fairness" ordinances.

That is why many people were puzzled when Jim Gray, Lexington's first openly gay mayor, was the most muted voice in the choir of opponents who urged Gov. Steve Beshear to veto the bill.

Beshear did issue a veto, but the General Assembly overturned it by a wide margin last week.

Beshear's veto came at the urging of dozens of organizations and individuals — liberal churches, gay rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Kentucky League of Cities, the Kentucky Association of Counties and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who said the bill would "take us backwards as a city and Commonwealth, hurting our strategic position in an increasingly global economy."

Gray, however, issued a tepid statement that stopped short of urging a veto. He has declined to elaborate publicly.

"The legislation's stated goal is to encourage religious freedom. That's a worthy goal," his statement said. "However, many citizens are concerned the bill may unintentionally open the door to discrimination. Last Thursday, I talked to the governor, shared these concerns and urged him to consider these issues carefully."

Gray took a beating in social media from some gay people and their supporters, but gay rights leaders were more circumspect. Lexington Fairness chairman Roy Harrison, in an interview Friday, avoided any criticism of Gray.

"We are really happy that he brought more discussion to the bill," Harrison said. "Everyone has their own political calculus."

The General Assembly's political calculus was clear. Most opponents of the bill were lawmakers from progressive urban districts. Legislators from more conservative rural, small-town and suburban districts voted for it.

In a conservative district, there is nothing more dangerous in the next election than having an opponent claim you voted against "religious freedom." Rural Democrats, especially, are feeling the heat.

Gray is seeking re-election to a second term as mayor next year, so he may have wanted to avoid alienating conservatives. But few people expect Gray to get serious opposition. Former Police Chief Anthany Beatty floated a trial balloon about running, but it hasn't gotten much lift.

Gray seems to be widely popular in Lexington, even among former critics. As mayor, he has had significant accomplishments and has made few missteps.

Besides, voters knew Gray was gay when they elected him to council in 2006 with enough votes to make him vice mayor. His sexual orientation wasn't really an issue when he unseated incumbent Mayor Jim Newberry in 2010. Since then, Gray hasn't tried to be "the gay mayor" — just "the mayor."

Gray's political calculation may have been that everyone, including the governor, knew where he stood on this subject, so he had little to gain by being vocal on a statewide controversy where he had no real influence.

Gray did come out strong a year ago on a Lexington controversy, when Hands on Originals cited religious objections in refusing to print T-shirts for a gay pride festival, sparking an ongoing investigation by the city's Human Rights Commission.

A more important political calculation may have been that Gray didn't want to anger the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bob Damon, D-Nicholasville, an influential member of the Central Kentucky delegation. Rep. Sannie Overly of Paris may have unseated Damron as chair of the House Democratic caucus this year, but the way this bill sailed through the General Assembly showed Damron still has plenty of clout.

For all the huffing and puffing on both sides, nobody seems to really know what this legislation will do. The stated intent is to make it easier for Kentuckians to ignore state laws or regulations that conflict with their "sincerely held" religious beliefs unless there is a "compelling governmental interest."

Bill supporters such as The Family Foundation, which could be more accurately called the Foundation for Families Just Like Ours, insists it is not a vehicle for discriminating against gay people. But a spokesman also has argued that the Hands on Originals case wasn't really discrimination.

The law's uncertainties and unintended consequences were a big reason Beshear said he vetoed it. "As written, the bill will undoubtedly lead to costly litigation," he said.

Don't forget the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars that have been wasted on defending clearly unconstitutional attempts by some local governments to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings.

Harrison, the Lexington Fairness chairman, said gay rights and civil liberties groups will be watching to see if this new law is used to try to justify discrimination. If so, they will aggressively challenge it.

Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, a Unitarian Universalist minister and opponent of the new law, mused that one unintended consequence of it could be to advance gay rights.

Unitarians support gay marriage. Could not they use this law to challenge Kentucky's 2004 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions as an infringement of their "sincerely held" religious beliefs? Might the state then be forced to show a "compelling governmental interest" for banning gay marriage?

One thing is for sure: this bad law will keep the culture warriors battling for years to come.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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