We sometimes disagreed with their approach, but there’s no denying that Republicans went into 2017 determined to put their newly won power into boosting Kentucky’s economy. To that end, legislative leaders and Gov. Matt Bevin spurned attempts to pass a “bathroom bill.”
They wanted to avoid the jobs-killing flak that came North Carolina’s way in response to its bigoted anti-LGBTQ law. To their credit, they succeeded.
Yet, despite their efforts to protect Kentucky’s reputation as welcoming to all, they still managed to enact a law that California has branded as discriminatory against gay and transgender students.
We can’t know how much investment, tourism or business Kentucky stands to lose. We do know that being known as discriminatory is bad for business, which puts the new law at odds with the GOP’s pro-business agenda.
California’s action is arrogant, no doubt. Nonetheless, Kentucky lawmakers should revisit the potentially discriminatory clause singled out by California’s attorney general. The provision serves no purpose, could create unnecessary legal conflicts for Kentucky schools and hurt innocent students.
Because of it, Louisville is already losing conventions, says Mayor Greg Fischer. He and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray sought exemptions from California’s ban on state-funded travel for their cities, but were refused. Home to 1 in 5 Kentuckians, the two cities long ago outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation.
California AG Xavier Becerra based his decision on how Kentucky’s new law, which took effect June 29, might be applied, not on any acts of discrimination.
And, as Californians have said, their new law, which took effect Jan. 1, has problems of its own, such as hypocrisy. Gov. Jerry Brown recently traveled to China to make a speech and promote trade, even though China bans same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. Pressuring other statehouses, even for a good cause, will inflame already painful divisions.
Making all this even more frustrating, Kentucky lawmakers of both parties voted for the new law knowing that it was unnecessary. Kentucky enacted a religious-freedom law four years ago. How many does one state need?
The 2017 version repeats longstanding laws, practices and constitutional protections regarding the religious and political rights of students with one possible exception — the clause that California’s AG identified as a means for discriminating against gay and transsexual students. It requires school boards and higher-ed governing boards to ensure religious or political student organizations can exclude students who are not “committed” to the groups’ missions. Boards also must ensure groups can define their own doctrines and principles. Students could adopt some noxious principles: racial or male supremacy, homophobia. But loathsome beliefs and speech are protected in our free society by the First Amendment, which also protects the freedom to associate with whom we choose.
Still, the clause could create an impossible choice for educators: How to enforce non-discrimination policies while obeying a law that forces them to support discrimination that, while ostensibly based on beliefs, is effectively based on race, gender, sexual orientation or identity. Unless some non-profit raises money by ginning up a test case, a la Kim Davis, that quandary might never arise. Millennials are known for tolerance and few of any age seek associates who believe they’re abominable.
The bill’s text was provided by the Family Foundation and is similar to laws in some states that California is not boycotting.
Rather than breast-beating and digging in, Bevin and Kentucky lawmakers should just delete the objectionable provision, acknowledging that its ramifications were not fully understood.
If schools are violating students’ rights, educating school officials about those rights would be more effective than a redundant law.
Lawmakers also should rethink their habit of enacting “off the shelf” bills supplied by interest groups.
California lawmakers should reconsider as well. Kentucky is one of eight states — including Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina — now under a travel ban that’s riddled with exceptions and appears to be inconsistently applied. Walling off public employees and university scholars from attending conferences in other states is bound to fuel resentments and is a peculiar way to support diversity and tolerance.