Politics & Government

Bill would let businesses refuse to serve gay customers for reasons of faith

The Family Foundation of Kentucky’s Martin Cothran, left, and Stan Cave, right, flank state Sen. Albert Robinson, R-London, on Thursday while testifying for Senate Bill 180 in Frankfort.
The Family Foundation of Kentucky’s Martin Cothran, left, and Stan Cave, right, flank state Sen. Albert Robinson, R-London, on Thursday while testifying for Senate Bill 180 in Frankfort. jcheves@herald-leader.com

A Senate committee approved two “religious liberty” bills Thursday, one to legally protect businesses that don’t want to serve gay, lesbian or transgender customers because of the owners’ religious objections, and the other to protect religious expression in public schools.

The first measure, Senate Bill 180, would prohibit the government from compelling services or actions from anyone if doing so conflicts 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.

Sen. Albert Robinson, R-London, the bill’s sponsor, said there are Christian-owned bakeries, florists and photographers in Kentucky that don’t want to assist with same-sex weddings. However, they also don’t want to face civil-rights lawsuits by spurned customers and punitive fines by local civil-rights agencies, Robinson said.

“All of these business owners want to treat everyone with full human dignity and respect,” Robinson, R-London, told the Senate Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection. “But their consciences and religious beliefs prevent them from using their skills to promote a celebration that runs counter to what the Bible teaches about marriage. Shouldn’t their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion be respected?”

Robinson said he’s also responding to 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 that 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.

“There is an agenda at work here that seeks to force people with sincerely held religious convictions to either abandon these beliefs or violate them or face state action that could close their businesses and destroy them financially,” Robinson told his colleagues Thursday.

As written, the bill would cover governments as well as businesses, limiting the power of public agencies to infringe on the “right of conscience” or “freedom of religion” of people who work for them.

For instance, last July, a religious group threatened to sue the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice over its anti-bias policy to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths in state custody. The department asked a volunteer Baptist minister, David Wells, to stop working at its Bowling Green detention center because Wells would not agree to stop warning the youths about “the harms of homosexuality” as taught in the Bible.

Tolerance can go too far, Stan Cave, an attorney for the Family Foundation of Kentucky, testified to the Senate committee on Thursday. Cave said he helped Robinson draft the bill.

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve heard a lot of conversation about tolerance,” Cave said. “All of us want to be tolerant. But there comes a point where one person’s rights infringe with being tolerant of another person’s beliefs.”

The committee voted 8 to 1 to approve SB 180 and send it to the Senate floor. Sen. Perry Clark, D-Louisville, cast the sole “no” vote, saying the state and federal constitutions already offer adequate protection for religious liberties. Four senators voted “pass,” citing the Hands On Originals case and saying the Senate traditionally doesn’t like to approve legislation that would affect lawsuits pending in the courts.

After the hearing, a gay-rights advocate said Robinson’s bill is “an open attack” on Lexington, Louisville, Covington, Morehead, Frankfort, Danville, Midway and Vicco, which have ordinances that protect the civil rights of their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens.

“It’s a clear attack on the eight cities that passed anti-discrimination fairness ordinances to protect LGBT people,” said Chris Hartman, director of the Louisville-based Fairness Campaign. “They made it crystal clear during the committee hearing that that’s what their aims are. So we’ll be doing everything we can to halt the progress of this legislation.”

There will be a continued backlash in the General Assembly as some people are frightened by the progress the LGBT community is making legally and socially, Hartman said.

“When folks lose ground, they attack more fiercely. That’s what we’re seeing here,” he said.

If Robinson’s bill is passed by the Republican-led Senate, it will cross the Capitol to the Democratic-led House. On Thursday, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he hasn’t heard any of his members discuss the bill.

“We’ll give it a full and fair hearing, I’m sure, as we do all Senate bills,” Stumbo said.

Also Thursday, the same Senate committee unanimously approved Senate Bill 106, sponsored by Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard.

SB 106 would require local school boards to permit “artistic or theatrical programs that advance students’ knowledge of society’s cultural and religious heritage and traditions, as well as provide opportunities for students to study and perform a wide range of cultural and religious music, literature, poetry and drama.”

At issue: Linus, the beloved Peanuts comic strip character. In December, Johnson County school officials deleted a Bible passage that Linus recites from a student production of A Charlie Brown Christmas, despite local protests from people who wanted it included. During one performance, several adults in the audience loudly recited the lines on their own.

Johnson County school superintendent Thomas Salyer sent a letter to the district’s principals Dec. 11 reminding them that federal courts have forbidden public school officials from encouraging or soliciting religious activity. Under the U.S. Constitution, citizens can express their religious beliefs, but government cannot give favorable treatment to a religion.

“The U.S. Supreme Court and the 6th Circuit (U.S. Court of Appeals) are very clear that public school staff may not endorse any religion when acting in their official capacities and during school activities,” Salyer wrote in his letter.

Senators at Thursday’s Senate committee hearing took issue with that idea. “Political correctness” has gotten so extreme in the United States that people can’t even say “Merry Christmas” without getting criticized, Smith told the Senate panel.

“That seems to be the trend today, where everybody wants to be politically correct,” Smith said. “Any sort of language that has any sort of Christian handle to it anymore is unacceptable or is offensive to people.”

Smith’s bill enjoyed strong bipartisan support.

“As a Democrat, I gladly support your bill and I want to see it passed because I saw absolutely nothing wrong with that performance,” said Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort.