Human rights and fairness groups are pressuring Gov. Steve Beshear to veto a bill that they say would make it easier to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender people in Kentucky.
House Bill 279, sponsored by Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, would strengthen a person's ability to ignore state regulations or laws that contradict his or her "sincerely held" religious beliefs. Damron has said that the measure mirrors a federal law passed in 1993 and that 12 states have approved similar laws.
The Senate approved the bill at about 11:30 p.m. Thursday on a 29-6 vote and sent it to Beshear for his consideration. He can sign it into law, veto it or let it become law without his signature.
Beshear said Friday afternoon that he hadn't made a decision about the bill.
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"Once we get it, we will review it and make some determination," Beshear said.
The Kentucky Equality Federation sent a letter to Beshear before the Senate vote, urging the two-term Democratic governor to veto the measure.
"House Bill 279 represents a clear and present danger to the gay and lesbian community and other minority groups around the commonwealth," the letter said. "House Bill 279 does nothing more than give people permission to discriminate based on their religious beliefs, thereby taking it beyond 'freedom of religion' to 'forced religion,' because they have imposed their religious beliefs on others, with legal authority to do so."
Opponents contend that the bill could be used to circumvent fairness ordinances approved by Lexington and three other Kentucky cities that ban discrimination against gay, lesbian and other populations not covered by federal civil rights laws.
Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, said during Thursday night's debate on the Senate floor that the bill is "a sword to be used against minorities" and is unconstitutional.
Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, said Thursday that the proposal is needed because the U.S. Supreme Court and the Kentucky Supreme Court have changed their interpretations of religious freedom in recent court cases.
For example, some Amish Kentucky residents waged a legal battle with the state over the use of orange triangles on their slow-moving buggies. The Amish contended that the orange triangles violated their religious beliefs. They ultimately lost the court battle, and several Amish men were prosecuted in Western Kentucky before a law was passed last year allowing the use of white reflective tape.
"This bill simply takes us back to where we were in October 2012," Westerfield said.
Stein predicted that the measure will be challenged in courts and that taxpayers will have to foot the bill for what she called the legislature's wrong action.
Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, said the bill opens "the door to unintended consequences" and should not be approved.
Sen. Sara Beth Gregory, R-Monticello, dismissed those concerns, saying that a flood of lawsuits did not come after a similar federal law was approved in 1993. Gregory said courts have long held that protecting civil rights is a "compelling state interest" that trumps an individual's rights to religious freedom.
But some advocacy groups said the proposed state law could have a bigger impact than the federal law. Federal civil rights laws do not protect gay, lesbian and transgender populations from discrimination, unlike city ordinances approved in Lexington, Louisville, Covington and Vicco.
If Beshear signs the bill into law, gay, lesbian and transgender people could be discriminated against in those cities if someone proves that they have a "sincerely held" religious belief that homosexuality is immoral, the advocacy groups contend.
Carolyn Miller-Cooper, executive director of the Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission, said her agency "supports religious freedom but is concerned about the overly broad language of HB 279."
The bill, she said, could allow someone to deny certain types of people access to public facilities, employment opportunities or housing if that denial is "based upon a sincerely held religious belief."