FRANKFORT — A bill that would strengthen people's ability to ignore Kentucky regulations or laws that violate their religious beliefs is now headed to the Republican-controlled Senate.
On Friday, House Bill 279 passed the Democrat-controlled House, 82-7, with 11 members not voting on the bill.
Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, the sponsor of HB 279, said the measure would further clarify religious freedoms in state law. Thirteen other states have similar laws. The federal government enacted a religious-freedom bill in 1993.
Damron said the bill was needed because of recent state and U.S. Supreme Court cases that have changed the way religious freedom is interpreted.
But several Democratic House members spoke Friday in opposition to the measure during debate on the House floor, saying it was being pushed by the Catholic Church so it would not have to comply with any state or federal laws that direct health plans to provide birth control or other contraceptives to women.
The issue came to a head last year with the federal health-care overhaul, which required institutions to cover preventive care, including birth control. After an uproar from the Catholic Church, President Obama agreed to a compromise, saying that Catholic-owned institutions did not have to pay for birth control, but it had to be offered by their insurance plans.
Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, said many hospitals are now Catholic-owned. Many employees are not Catholic and could lose access to birth control, she said.
"Religious freedom sounds so Mom and apple pie," Marzian said, but the bill had unintended consequences.
Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, and other House members said they were concerned that the bill would also allow the Catholic Church to further cover up crimes involving priests by citing religious reasons for not complying with court orders to turn over documents.
But Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, said religious freedom has been eroded over time and that the bill would further strengthen religious freedoms. It would not cover up crimes, he said.
"The bill does not grant immunity to one priest," Lee said.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been critical of the bill, saying that religion could be used as a defense to trample on people's civil rights. For example, a landlord could use religion as an excuse not to rent to minorities or to a lesbian couple.
"We are particularly concerned that this bill could be used to undermine existing LGBT fairness protections for individuals covered by local statutes in Louisville, Lexington, Covington and Vicco, Kentucky," the ACLU said Friday in a written statement.
Damron countered that there was a need for the types of protections outlined in HB 279.
If Kentucky had had such a law in recent years, a fight between the state and Amish residents over appropriate signs for horse-drawn buggies would have been avoided, Damron said.
Citing religious beliefs, many Amish residents had refused for years to use fluorescent orange signs that warn approaching motorists of their slow-moving buggies. Last year, Gov. Steve Beshear signed a bill that allows the use of reflective silver or white tape on buggies.