The GOP campaign for president has been dominated by calls for prejudice and discrimination, so it is hardly surprising that some Republicans in the Kentucky Senate want to incorporate it into state law.
An anti-business bill that opponents have correctly labeled the “license to discriminate” act passed the Senate last week, 22-16. Five Republicans joined all 11 Democrats voting against it.
In 1966, Kentucky became the first Southern state to make it illegal for businesses providing “public accommodations” to discriminate against customers on the basis of race or religion. Lexington, Louisville and six other communities have local laws expanding those protections to gay, lesbian and transgender people.
Senate Bill 180 would undo many of those protections, essentially allowing business owners to refuse service to anyone they don’t like based on their own religious beliefs or “right of conscience.”
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Thankfully, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat, has made it clear this legislation will go nowhere in the House of Representatives. “We took an oath to uphold the Constitution, not violate it,” he said.
Of course, the people behind this bill knew that would happen. Their real reason for pushing the bill was to sucker fundamentalist Christians into voting for Republican legislators. The GOP has pandered to these voters for decades, even though the courts have made it clear that the Christian theocracy they seek is unconstitutional.
The political strategy works pretty well, though. Many fundamentalist Christians will never accept the separation of church and state, but it’s an easy concept to understand: Your freedom of religion stops at the point you try to force your beliefs on others.
For those less interested in church-state politics and social justice, there’s still a good reason to be against bills like this: discrimination is bad for business.
We have seen a flurry of these laws since homosexuals began securing equal rights long denied them. Kentucky lawmakers enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2013 over former Gov. Steve Beshear’s veto. Senate Bill 180 would expand it to keep businesses from being prosecuted under local ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Laws such as SB 180 are always couched in language about protecting rights for some people, but their real purpose is denying rights to others. In states that have passed the most blatant of these laws, the economic consequences have been real.
Since Indiana passed such a law a year ago, the state has lost $60 million in convention business, according to a survey done for Visit Indy, a tourism group, and obtained in January by The Associated Press.
Many Kentucky companies realize how discrimination hurts business and economic opportunity. That is why more than 100 Kentucky companies —including UPS, Brown-Forman, Humana and Fifth Third Bank — formed the Kentucky Competitive Workforce Coalition to push for statewide protections against LGBT discrimination, similar to the “fairness” ordinances in Lexington and seven other cities that this bill tries to subvert.
“The Kentucky Chamber does not condone discrimination in any form,” David Adkisson, the chamber’s president, said in a statement regarding SB 180.
“We are not aware of any instances of discrimination stemming from Kentucky’s more narrow law passed in 2013, nor any negative economic consequences as a result,” he added. “Our Chamber has not formally debated the merits of the law or the need for any clarification of Kentucky statutes in this regard.”
Before Kentucky lawmakers allow business owners to discriminate against people they don’t like, it’s worth considering all of the possible ramifications. For example, the Bible condemns other traits and behaviors far more than homosexuality. Could businesses refuse to serve divorced people? What about adulterers or rich people? How about hypocritical legislators?
The Republicans behind SB 180 should be seen for the political opportunist they are, and the bill should die a quiet death. But it is tempting to endorse the approach of Rep. Joni Jenkins, a Shively Democrat.
Jenkins has filed a House amendment to SB 180 that would require businesses seeking to discriminate against particular types of patrons to disclose that fact prominently in their advertising, signage and websites. That way, less narrow-minded people would know to patronize their competitors instead.