FRANKFORT — Kentuckians may get to vote this November on a proposed change to the state Constitution that its backers call "the Religious Freedom Act."
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the constitutional amendment Wednesday on a vote of 6-0, with Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, passing.
The sponsor of Senate Bill 158, Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, said it is designed to protect the free exercise of religion from unnecessary restriction by government.
He said it would give courts "more ammunition in favor of religion" when considering cases such as the jailing of Amish residents in Western Kentucky who refused to use orange safety triangles on their buggies and Christians in Bell County who want to hold public prayer at school athletic events.
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The bill would "prohibit any human authority from burdening actions that are based on religious beliefs, except in support of a compelling governmental interest using the least restrictive means to further that interest."
The government would have to prove it has a "compelling interest" before it could restrict someone's religious freedom, Higdon said.
Alabama, the only state that has adopted such a constitutional amendment, has included such things as the protection of life, liberty and property when defining compelling interest.
North Dakota is considering such an amendment and 19 states have put it in their statutes.
Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, said the bill gives her "great concern." She said the state Constitution is clear in providing freedom of religion.
"This needs more study to find out what it actually will do," Stein said.
Martin Cothran, spokesman for The Family Foundation of Kentucky, said the measure is needed because the U.S. Supreme Court has diluted freedom of religion protections already offered by federal and state constitutions
He said his group favors adopting a constitutional amendment rather than a statute "to make it more permanent."
The Catholic Conference of Kentucky also supports the measure.
If the legislature approves SB 158, Kentuckians would vote on it in November at the polls.
So far, there is only one constitutional amendment on the fall ballot in Kentucky. There can be as many as four.
The amendment already on the ballot would protect the right of residents to hunt and fish in the state. It was approved in the 2011 legislative session to mandate that hunting and fishing should never be outlawed in the state without a vote of the people.
Earlier this year, the legislature defeated a proposed constitutional amendment backed by Gov. Steve Beshear to expand gambling in the state.
The Senate committee Wednesday also approved and sent to the Senate:
■ SB 212, sponsored by Stein, which would remove the word "retarded" from state laws and replace it with "disabled."
■ SB 179, sponsored by Sen. Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood, which would require local option elections to be held on the same day as a primary or regular election.