FRANKFORT — Opponents of a religious freedom bill approved this year by the Kentucky legislature said Wednesday they are disappointed that Lexington Mayor Jim Gray has declined to publicly urge Gov. Steve Beshear to veto the bill.
Groups pressuring Beshear to veto House Bill 279 contend the measure could be used to challenge local anti-discrimination laws that protect gays and lesbians in Lexington, Louisville, Covington and Vicco. Proponents, however, say the bill will not infringe anyone's civil rights, rather it will give stronger court protections to people who claim the government violated their religious freedom.
Gray, who is openly gay, issued a statement Tuesday evening that said he has talked to Beshear about the issue, but it stopped short of saying he opposes the bill or believes Beshear should veto it.
"The legislation's stated goal is to encourage religious freedom. That's a worthy goal," Gray said. "However, many citizens are concerned the bill may unintentionally open the door to discrimination. Last Thursday, I talked to the governor, shared these concerns and urged him to consider these issues carefully."
Repeated requests by the Herald-Leader to interview Gray Wednesday were declined. A spokeswoman also declined to further clarify Gray's stance on the bill.
"We're disappointed in Mayor Gray's statement," said Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville-based group that advocates on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Kentuckians.
Hartman noted that Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Covington's city council have asked Beshear to veto the bill.
"Given Lexington's broad and diverse constituency and all of the questions brought forward about civil rights and unintended consequences of HB 279, we thought Mayor Gray had the responsibility to call on Gov. Beshear to veto the measure as Mayor Fischer and Covington's city council have," Hartman said.
Roy Harrison, chairman of Lexington Fairness, said his group opposes the bill and has asked Beshear to veto it. Asked about Gray's statement, Harrison said "we are pleased that a broad-based coalition of political leaders inside and outside of Lexington is concerned about the bill."
He declined to elaborate.
Beshear has until Friday to decide whether to veto the bill that the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved, sign it into law or let it become law without his signature. Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, has said the Senate would override a gubernatorial veto of the bill.
Beshear said Wednesday that he is gathering information on the bill "from both sides."
"We are hearing a lot, from a lot of folks," he said.
Martin Cothran, a spokesman for The Family Foundation, said his group, the Catholic Conference of Kentucky and the Kentucky Baptist Convention have all called on the governor to sign the bill into law.
"Gay rights groups in this state have now come out of the closet on their opposition to religious freedom," Cothran said in a statement.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer made his arguments against HB 279 in a letter this week to Beshear. He said the bill would "take us backwards as a city and Commonwealth, hurting our strategic position in an increasingly global economy."
Fischer noted that Louisville and Lexington "are in the midst of a dramatic partnership known as the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement" to spread the word to companies owned by people of many different religions and races that the area is "THE place for advanced, high-tech and futuristic manufacturing jobs."
"The negative national publicity that will result from this law and the inevitable lawsuits that will result from it will not be good for business," Fischer wrote.
In urging Beshear to veto the bill, Fischer said it might allow a Christian restaurant owner to refuse to serve a member of the Jewish faith or a property owner to refuse to rent to gays and lesbians because of his religious beliefs.
Proponents of the bill say there is little evidence to support such fears. Sixteen states have passed similar laws, which experts say are little used.
State Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, who sponsored the bill, said it is a response to a former state law, upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court, that required the Amish to display bright orange safety triangles on their black buggies so that they could be better seen by motorists.
The law has since been changed to accommodate the Amish, but not before several Amish men went to jail rather than display the triangles, which they said went against their religious beliefs.