By Beth Musgrave
FRANKFORT — A proposal that would strengthen people’s ability to ignore Kentucky regulations or laws that violate their religious beliefs cleared a House panel Monday.
The House Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 279 on a 12 to 3 vote, despite objections from a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union who said the measure might allow people to use religion as justification for trampling someone’s civil rights. The measure now moves to the House for its consideration.
The bill is based on a similar 1993 federal law, said Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville.
If Kentucky had such a law in recent years, a fight between the state and the Amish community over the appropriate signage for horse-drawn buggies would have been avoided, Damron said.
Citing religious beliefs, many in the Amish community had for years refused to use fluorescent orange signs that warn approaching motorists of their slow-moving buggies. Last year, Gov. Steve Beshear signed a bill into law that allows the use of reflective silver or white tape on buggies.
The Republican-led Senate approved a proposed constitutional amendment last year that contained similar language regarding religious freedoms. The measure, which would have required voter approval, died in the Democratic-led House.
Damron said Monday he doesn’t believe a constitutional amendment is needed to enact the religious freedom protections outlined in HB 279.
Jason Hall, a policy analyst with the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, told lawmakers that more than a dozen other states have already passed similar laws.
Still, several members of the committee questioned whether further clarification of religious freedoms is needed.
Derek Selznick, program director for the ACLU of Kentucky, raised concerns about unintended consequences of the bill.
For example, Selznick said, the measure might allow a landlord to use her religious beliefs to refuse to rent to a lesbian couple in a community where local ordinances ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“Church goers could claim that parking tickets issued for failure to pay the meter burden their ability to attend church services,” Selznick said.
Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, who voted against the measure, questioned the timing of the bill. If a federal law was passed in 1993, why is the Catholic Conference pushing a proposal on the state level a decade later, she asked?
Flood also questioned why the state needs to pass additional protections if there’s already a federal law. Hall responded that other states decided similar measures were necessary to deal with challenges to state laws.
Selznick suggested that the committee alter HB 279 to state that it does not authorize the violation of someone’s civil rights based on religious beliefs. The bill was not amended in the committee.
Text of House Bill 279
Government shall not burden a person’s or religious organization’s freedom of religion. The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be burdened unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest. A “burden” shall include indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, or an exclusion from programs or access to facilities.