Kentucky legislators have passed a law they say protects “religious freedom” and have forwarded it to Gov. Steve Beshear.
This morning, Americans United joined other groups in the state asking Beshear to veto the bill.
It’s not that AU doesn’t support religious freedom. Indeed, we consider the separation of church and state a necessary precondition for true religious liberty to flourish. The problem is, this bill isn’t really about religious freedom; it’s designed to do other things entirely.
The measure, House Bill 279, could essentially give Kentucky residents wide-ranging new powers to discriminate against others by citing religion.
What are some of the things that could happen if this bill becomes law? A pharmacist could refuse to provide Plan B drugs to a rape victim. The owner of an apartment building could refuse to rent to an unmarried couple. A woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock could be summarily fired from her job. The measure would also largely nullify protections for gays and lesbians that a handful of Kentucky communities have passed.
In short, the bill could end up elevating the religious beliefs of some people over the civil rights of all. This goes too far.
Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Fairness Coalition (an LGBT rights group) make this point in a letter that was sent to Beshear this morning. More than four dozen groups signed the letter.
“House Bill 279 does not explicitly make clear that existing civil rights protections are both necessary and appropriate, therefore elected judges throughout Kentucky’s 120 counties will be forced to decide that question on a case-by-case basis,” observes the letter. “A religious individual could claim an exemption from any law or policy that prohibits discrimination – leaving racial minorities, women, LGBT people, and others without adequate protections. These civil rights protections are too important, and the risk of inconsistent decisions too great, to leave it unaddressed by House Bill 279.”
The Associated Press has reported that Beshear is facing a lot of pressure over this bill. The Family Foundation, a statewide Religious Right group affiliated with Focus on the Family, is lobbying Beshear to sign it.
Religious Right groups claim that religious freedom is under fire in Kentucky because last year the state supreme court ruled that a state law requiring orange safety triangles on slow-moving vehicles could be applied to the Amish. Some members of the Amish served short jail terms rather than display the bright signs, which they consider “loud” and “worldly.”
No one should be fooled. This isn’t about the Amish. In fact, that law has already been modified to address their concerns. (The Amish have agreed to use reflective tape, lanterns and red reflector lights instead.) This bill is a power grab. It’s all about some religious groups winning the legal right to discriminate against others and deny them certain rights.
Beshear should veto this misguided measure.