On the same day the Supreme Court took up marriage equality, the Kentucky legislature voted 79 to 15 to override Governor Steve Beshear’s veto of HB279, Kentucky’s new so-called “Religious Freedom Act.”
Beshear said on Friday (via Twitter), “I’ve vetoed HB 279 because while it has well-placed intentions, there are possible significant unintended consequences…I value and cherish our rights to religious freedom…I have significant concerns that HB279 will cause serious unintentional consequences; impact on public safety, health care, civil rights.”
Last week, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer weighed in on HB279, urging the governor’s Veto.
His letter asked, “Under this law:
- Could a Christian restaurant owner refuse to serve a member of the Jewish faith?
- Could a grocery store owner refuse to hire women as cashiers because his faith dictates their place is in the home?
- Could a factory owner refuse to hire or terminate employees who sometimes drink alcohol off the job, because his religious faith teaches against drinking?
- Could a property owner refuse to rent to gays or lesbians because of his religious beliefs?
- Could an employer whose religious faith does not believe in the mixing of races use that as a justification for not hiring or firing employees of one race?”
Lexington, Louisville, Covington, and Vicco, Kentucky have Fairness Ordinances, the tenets of which are imperiled by HB279.
Covington unanimously passed a resolution opposing HB 279 and asking Beshear to veto the bill. Advocacy groups do commonly press Lexington Fayette Urban County Council to take a position on pending state legislation (e.g., CM Ford introduced a resolution on February 26 asking the Council to support restoring voting rights for returning citizens post-incarceration), but LFUCG did not send a resolution to the state on HB 279.
In the lengthy public forum discussion about voter rights, advocate Anthony Everett, a member of the Interdenominational Pastors’ Fellowship of Lexington and Nia Community of Faith, told the Council that Lexington could be seen as a trailblazer in civil rights, having elected an openly gay mayor. (A painfully awkward silence fell, followed by… crickets.) He then said, “As the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Lexington mayor Jim Gray asked Beshear to carefully consider the consequences of the bill, but did not press for a veto. In much the way Obama has not historically run point on race issues, Gray, with future campaigns to be run in the buckle of the bible belt, has not carried water as an LGBT poster advocate.
A group of state legislators in the House and Senate sent Governor Beshear a letter urging Veto that read, in part:
We agree with the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights’, recently stated position, that this legislation could be used by any individual or entity under the guise of a “sincerely held religious belief” to violate local civil rights protections and challenge them in court. We do not feel civil rights protections should be decided on a case-by-case basis by judges across our state. We feel we should seek to protect our most vulnerable residents, not open the door for further discrimination against them.
It was signed by state senators Denise Harper Angel, Morgan McGarvey, Kathy Stein, Perry Clark, and Gerald Neal, and state representatives Kelly Flood, Mary Lou Marzian, Tom Burch, Joni Jenkins, Reginald Meeks, and Jim Wayne.
HB 279: Call it What it Is
HB279 was coyly called the Religious Freedom bill.
With a name like that, it’s got to be good, right?
Not so fast.
Freedom of religion (and its less-invoked cousin, freedom from religion) are so great that they’re already constitutionally protected in the first amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”)
But make no mistake: HB 279 was never about Religious Freedom. It was never about an innocent attempt to make the world safe for the Amish, which was disingenuously suggested by some of its proponents.
If it had been named accurately and reflectively – the Legalize Discrimination Bill, or the Roll Back Fairness Bill — it might not have sailed through Kentucky’s legislature so handily. (But then again, it might have.)
As long as someone — e.g., a landlord or employer – is acting on his or her “sincere” religious beliefs, HB 279 opens the door, as Mayor Fischer’s letter to the Governor pointed out, for potential discrimination and a rollback of Fairness Ordinances.
Kentucky has been in the news like this before, notably when Rand Paul was questioned about his stance on the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act… “should a small business have to put in a costly elevator even if it threatens their economic viability?“) Farther back, it was a Kentucky Court of Appeals judge who wrote in 1973 who wrote “that Kentucky couldn’t grant a marriage license to a same-sex couple because ‘what they propose is not a marriage.’”
HB 279 and other similar legislation sprouted from a national movement to allow nominally religious employers to decline health insurance coverage for anything they might morally oppose (e.g., birth control prescriptions). It seems a slippery slope in that Catholic Hospitals haven’t lobbied for permission to deny insurance or treatment to any other laundry lists of potentially immoral behaviors — for example, drunk drivers injured in car accidents or drug-dealing gunshot victims. Emergency Rooms aren’t currently allowed to provide or deny treatment or prescriptions according to the relative morality of any behavior that might have landed a patient in the ambulance.
Gluttony is one of the Seven Deadly Sins from the Judeo-Christian perspective, but Type 2 Diabetes is still covered.
From there, such legislation has morphed into a larger movement that wouldn’t just discriminate against women, it would also roll back the modest gains of Fairness Ordinances that have extended equal housing and job rights to the LGBT community.
So much for Oliver Wendell Holmes and his suggestion that the right to extend one’s fist stops at the next guy’s nose — that the constitutional freedoms of one man does not give him the right to rob others of their life, liberty, and pursuits of happiness.
This just in, in “unintended consequences,” Louisville’s Reverend Dawn Cooley wrote this evening,
“As soon as this bill passes into law, I will officially begin conducting weddings and signing marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples, as is standard practice in my religion. It will be my right to act in this manner, in accordance to my faith. If a county clerk refuses to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, I will have him/her cited for burdening my freedom of religion, but I am sure I will be able to find at least one who will understand and sympathize and act in accordance with the law.
The Rev. Dawn Cooley
First Unitarian Church
Bend toward justice, indeed.