The General Assembly voted late Tuesday to override the governor’s veto of a bill intended to better protect legal claims of religious freedom.
The law will give stronger legal standing to people in court who claim the government burdened their ability to practice their religion. The legislation protects “sincerely held religious beliefs” from infringement unless there is “a compelling governmental interest.” The courts will still consider and rule on each matter.
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear vetoed the bill Friday over concerns that someone’s claim of religious freedom could undermine civil rights protections for gays and lesbians and lead to costly lawsuits for taxpayers.
But sponsors of the bill said it would only provide a higher level of legal protection that already exists on the federal level and in at least 16 states. They said the law isn’t intended to discriminate against anyone, adding that the courts will have the final say on each claim.
The bill became one of the most polarizing issues during the legislative session, pitting civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky against religious organizations such as the Catholic Conference of Kentucky.
In the end, the House vote to override was 79-15. The Senate voted 32-6.
“This is a piece of legislation looking for a reason – because there is no reason for it other than what I perceive as pandering to a certain segment of this community,” said Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, who voted no.
Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, added that it will cost taxpayers money.
“Taxpayers you can blame us,” she said. “You got to get out your check books and write them to the ACLU. I’m a member.”
Democratic Rep. Bob Damron of Nicholasville sponsored the bill. He said it’s not intended to hurt anyone or undermine municipal civil rights protections.
He said it’s needed after the Kentucky Supreme Court’s ruling against the Amish last year. The court upheld a state law requiring the Amish to display bright orange safety triangles on their drab buggies so motorists could better see them. Several Amish men in rural western Kentucky went to jail rather than comply with the law.
Wayne State University law professor Christopher Lund reviewed the effects of 16 state religious freedom laws, finding they’ve largely been unused and that people who did claim religious infringement in those states lost more often than they won.
For example, the religious freedom law in New Mexico has so far failed to protect a Christian wedding photographer who refused to take pictures of a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony. Two courts so far have ruled against her, saying she violated a state civil rights law. The state Supreme Court is reviewing her case.
Gov. Beshear has said that the wording in Kentucky’s bill is more vaguely worded than the other state laws.
“I have significant concerns that this bill will cause serious unintentional consequences that could threaten public safety, health care and individuals’ civil rights,” he said after the override.