Politics & Government

New Ky. laws dealing with dropout age, religious beliefs take effect Tuesday

FRANKFORT — More than a hundred new state laws take effect Tuesday, including one that allows Kentucky school districts to begin voting on plans to raise their dropout age from 16 to 18 in the 2015-16 school year.

The General Assembly approved 129 bills during the 2013 session, which concluded on March 26. Most of the laws take effect 90 days after the conclusion of the session.

Starting Tuesday, people convicted of human trafficking will face stiffer penalties, as will those convicting of killing a police officer or firefighter. And Kentuckians will have more leeway to ignore state regulations or laws that contradict their "sincerely held" religious beliefs.

School boards in Jefferson and Fayette counties — the two largest in Kentucky — are poised to pass resolutions soon to raise the dropout age, officials with both districts said Monday. The Fayette County School Board was slated to give first reading to its proposal at Monday night's board meeting, but the measure would not be final until July, said spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall.

Still, Senate Bill 97 stipulates that school districts can't actually implement a higher dropout age until the 2015-16 school year. Once 55 percent of Kentucky's 174 school districts raise the age, the remaining districts will have four years to implement the change.

Under Senate Bill 15, those convicted of criminal homicide in the death of a clearly identified police officer or firefighter will have to serve 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole. The bill was named after Lexington Police Officer Bryan Durman, who was killed in 2010 while investigating a noise complaint on North Limestone.

Glenn Doneghy, who was convicted of second-degree manslaughter in Durman's death, will only have to serve 20 percent of his 20 year sentence before becoming eligible for parole in 2014.

Under House Bill 279, the controversial religious-freedom bill, someone with "sincerely held" religious beliefs can disregard state laws "unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing" the person's religious freedom.

Opponents of the bill fear it will allow the use of religious beliefs to justify discrimination, particularly against same-sex couples. Gov. Steve Beshear, citing concerns about potential lawsuits, vetoed the bill earlier this year, but the House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to override Beshear's veto.

Backers of the law said it was needed in light of a Kentucky Supreme Court ruling last year that upheld a state law requiring the Amish to display bright orange safety triangles on their buggies so motorists could better see them. The court's ruling lowered the standard by which the state could infringe on the free exercise of religion, said those who supported the bill.

Going forward, HB 279 could impact a dispute between Lexington T-shirt printer Hands on Originals and the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization of Lexington. Paul Brown, president of the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization, said he believes Hands on Originals will probably rely on the new law as part of its defense.

"I feel like it has the real possibility of helping them," Brown said. "It could be the test case. If this is not the test case, I believe there will be one soon."

The dispute began in 2012, when Hands On Originals refused to print T-shirts for the annual Gay Pride Festival organized by the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization. Hands On Originals' leader has said he declined the order because the T-shirt vendor is a Christian company, and he disagreed with the message of the shirt. The apparel was to include a stylized number 5 on the front with "Lexington Pride Festival" and a list of the sponsors of the fifth edition of the event on the back.

The Lexington Human Rights Commission said there was probable cause that Hands on Originals violated the city's fairness ordinance, which prohibits public businesses from discriminating based on sexual orientation. The matter will go before an administrative hearing officer in late August or September, Brown said.

He said the wording of the new law is so broad and vague that anyone could claim a strongly held religious belief to skirt laws they don't agree with.

"This isn't just about Christianity," Brown said. "There are slews of religions out there. Or people could just make up a religion."

Jim Campbell, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing Hands On Originals, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.