After a tense debate on religion, the Kentucky Senate voted 22-16 Tuesday to approve a controversial bill that aims to legally protect businesses that, because of their owners’ religious beliefs, don’t want to serve gay customers.
The measure now goes to the House, where Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said Senate Bill 180 would languish.
“We took an oath to uphold the Constitution, not violate it,” Stumbo said late Tuesday.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Albert Robinson of London, said his measure was “a common-sense, live-and-let-live” proposal designed to protect the religious liberties of everyone.
Critics said the proposal was a “license to discriminate” that would hurt economic development by sending the message that Kentuckians don’t want to do business with people who are different from them.
SB 180 would prohibit the government from compelling services or actions from anyone if doing so conflicted with their sincerely held religious beliefs. The bill expands the state’s 2013 Religious Freedom Restoration Act to clarify that businesses could not be punished in such cases for violating local ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Five Senate Republicans joined all 11 Senate Democrats in voting against the bill. Those five were Carroll Gibson of Leitchfield, Alice Forgy Kerr of Lexington, Christian McDaniel of Latonia, Julie Raque Adams of Louisville and Wil Schroder of Wilder.
The Senate debate featured a lively exchange between Robinson and Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, who at one point asked Robinson if he believed that homosexuality and same-sex marriage were sinful. Robinson said that he did but that he also realized the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last year.
In his floor speech on the bill, Robinson said businesses should be allowed to deny service to customers if they are required to “use their skills to provide a customized service celebrating something that violated one of the tenets of their faith.”
He added: “There is an agenda at work here that seeks to force people with sincerely held religious convictions to either abandon those beliefs, violate them or face state action that could close their businesses and destroy them financially. The freedom of conscience has been long respected in America.”
Thomas said he is a Christian who believes that Jesus Christ said to love everybody. The bill “will return Kentucky to the dark ages of the past,” he said.
Such legislation, Thomas said, encourages physical fights that the nation is now seeing in the race for president.
“I do not want to be a part of that,” he said.
Sen. Dennis Parrett, D-Elizabethtown, said the bill “opens up a huge can of worms.” Similar legislation from other states is being reviewed by federal courts, and the Kentucky General Assembly should wait for those rulings before taking action, he said.
Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, said the bill was “a dangerous overreach.”
He noted the case of Hands On Originals, a Lexington business that refused to print T-shirts in 2012 for the Lexington Pride Festival, citing the owner’s religious objections.
The Lexington Human Rights Commission found that Hands On Originals violated the city’s fairness ordinance requiring service to gays and lesbians. But Fayette Circuit Judge James Ishmael overturned that decision, ruling there was no evidence the business refused the T-shirt order because of the sexuality of the would-be customers. Rather, the business objected to the shirt’s message “advocating sexual activity outside of a marriage between one man and one woman,” he wrote. The case is now on appeal.
Chris Hartman, director of the Louisville-based Fairness Campaign, said SB 180 threatens the anti-discrimination ordinances Lexington and seven other Kentucky cities have approved that cover the LGBT community.
“This is an incredibly disappointing day in the Kentucky Senate,” said Hartman. “Despite bipartisan opposition to this license to discriminate, our Senate has sent the message that Kentucky may not be open for business for everyone. We hope Kentucky House leaders will show greater wisdom and give this piece of legislation as much consideration as it deserves — none.”
Hartman noted that several major businesses in Kentucky, including Brown-Forman Corp., Humana and Fifth Third Bank, are backing a proposal for statewide LGBT discrimination protections.
The Family Foundation of Kentucky praised the Senate for approving the bill, which spokesman Martin Cothran said “will hopefully prevent at least some of the extreme forms of anti-religious bigotry we are starting to see directed toward people of faith who own businesses that offer creative services.”