FRANKFORT — A bill intended to clarify religious freedom in Kentucky advanced in the legislature Wednesday over the objections of groups who fear that the measure could be used to trample civil rights.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to send House Bill 279 to the full Senate for consideration. Two Democrats, Sen. Perry Clark of Louisville and Sen. Jerry Rhoads of Madisonville, voted against the measure, which would strengthen a person's ability to ignore state regulations or laws that contradict their "sincerely held" religious beliefs.
The bill's sponsor, Democratic Rep. Bob Damron of Nicholasville, said the measure mirrors a federal law passed in 1993. Twelve states have approved similar laws clarifying religious freedom, Damron said.
The proposal is needed because the U.S. Supreme Court and the Kentucky Supreme Court have changed their interpretations of religious freedom in recent court cases, backers of the bill said Wednesday. For example, some Amish Kentucky residents waged a legal battle with the state over the use of orange triangles on their slow-moving buggies.
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The Amish contended that the orange triangles violated their religious beliefs. They ultimately lost the court battle, although the legislature approved a law last year allowing the use of white reflective tape.
Opponents of the bill have raised concerns that the measure would allow the Catholic Church to cover up wrongdoings by priests, but Damron said the bill would not give protections to priests accused of wrongdoing.
"This bill does not impact anyone's civil rights," Damron said. "It has nothing to do with someone's ability to abuse children or commit criminal acts."
William Sharp, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who represented the Amish in their legal battle, said the ACLU is committed to protecting religious freedoms, but the proposed bill does not go far enough to protect people's civil rights.
Sharp said people could use the law to discriminate against gay, lesbian and other populations not covered by federal civil rights laws. Roughly 25 percent of Kentuckians live in cities that have passed local ordinances banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
"Any suggestion that federal non-discrimination laws would adequately protect Kentuckians from religious-based discrimination is simply false," Sharp said.
The Kentucky Human Rights Commission, and human-rights commissions in Lexington and Louisville, also oppose HB 279.
The Kentucky Human Rights Commission released a statement earlier this week saying the bill "could make discrimination legal if the discrimination perpetrated is claimed to be due to 'a sincerely held religious belief.'"
Before overriding a person's religious beliefs, the bill would require the government to prove "by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest."
Jason Hall, associate director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, which has pushed the bill, said after Wednesday's meeting that courts in various states have consistently considered civil rights protections to be a "compelling governmental interest" that trumps a person's claim to religious freedom.
Hall also dismissed claims that the Catholic Conference of Kentucky was pushing the bill in reaction to a dispute between President Barack Obama's administration and the Catholic Church over whether Catholic-owned health insurance plans must provide birth control.
"Those battles are federal battles," Hall said, and HB 279 affects only state laws.
Clark and Rhoads, the two senators who voted against the bill, said the proposal isn't needed because the Kentucky Constitution already protects religious freedom.
The measure could "open the door to spurious claims," Rhoads said.