FRANKFORT — The Kentucky General Assembly voted Tuesday night to overturn Gov. Steve Beshear's veto of controversial legislation known as the "religious freedom" bill, which was opposed by many human and gay rights groups and leaders of some of Kentucky's biggest cities.
The override passed the Democratic House 79-15 and the Republican Senate 32-6.
Rep. Bob Damron, D- Nicholasville, sponsored the bill after the Kentucky Supreme Court issued a ruling last year upholding a state law requiring the Amish to display bright orange safety triangles on their drab buggies so motorists could better see them. Several Amish men in rural Western Kentucky felt so strongly that displaying the triangles violated their religious belief against calling attention to themselves that they went to jail rather than comply with the law.
The legislation protects "sincerely held religious beliefs" from infringement unless there is "a compelling governmental interest."
Those who opposed the measure said they are concerned that House Bill 279 would allow someone with a "sincerely held" religious belief to discriminate against others. Lexington, Louisville, Covington and Vicco have passed local ordinances that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, among other things.
Chris Hartman, director of the Kentucky Fairness Campaign, said the override of Beshear's veto made minorities more vulnerable to discrimination.
"The General Assembly's override of Governor Beshear's veto is a virtually incomprehensible endorsement of discrimination, and legislators should be held accountable by those who support the rights of women, children, people of color, and all Kentuckians made potentially vulnerable by this law," Hartman said in a written statement.
But some religious leaders praised the override, blaming fairness groups and the American Civil Liberties Union for trying to drum up opposition to HB 279.
"The ACLU and the Fairness Alliance, along with a compliant liberal media, distorted this bill beyond recognition," said Martin Cothran, spokesman for the Family Foundation.
"The magnitude of this vote should send a message to these groups that this kind of deception is not appreciated by the majority of the state's elected lawmakers."
The two-term Democratic governor vetoed the bill on Friday. Beshear said the bill was too vaguely worded and could result in costly and protracted lawsuits for county, city and state governments. More than 50 groups, including the Kentucky Association of Counties, the Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Education Association, had contacted him in opposition to HB 279.
But those who back the bill argue that 16 other states have passed similar bills and have seen few if any lawsuits filed. Those who have tried to use religious beliefs to disregard state or local laws have typically lost those cases in the courts, they argue.
Kent Ostrander, the director of the Family Foundation, told a group of more than 150 gathered in the Capitol rotunda for a rally on Tuesday that the bill's detractors' fears are unfounded.
"It is primarily a shield for people of faith, not a sword," Ostrander said. "This legislation is doing nothing more than what the U.S. Congress did in the early 1990s."
Congress passed a similar bill in 1993. But Beshear said that the federal religious freedom bill offered more protections than Kentucky's bill.
Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, said that he had heard of no one's religious rights being trampled on in Kentucky. "There is no reason for it," Owens said of HB 279.
But others said that their constituents had overwhelmingly urged them to override the veto. Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, said that religious freedom has been under attack. Prayer and Bibles have been taken out of schools, Lee said.
"You don't think your religious freedom is under attack?" Lee said.
Beshear said late Tuesday that he was disappointed that the General Assembly had voted to overturn his veto.
"As I explained in my veto message, I have significant concerns that this bill will cause serious unintentional consequences that could threaten public safety, health care, and individuals' civil rights," Beshear said.