Home » Human Rights Commission says Religious Freedom Act would jeopardize civil rights enforcement

Human Rights Commission says Religious Freedom Act would jeopardize civil rights enforcement

FRANKFORT, Ky. (March 22, 2013) — The Kentucky Commission on Human Rights on Thursday sent a letter encouraging Gov. Steve Beshear to veto the Religious Freedom Act.

The legislation would: “Create a new section of KRS Chapter 446 to specify that government shall not burden a person’s or religious organization’s freedom of religion; protect the right to act or refuse to act on religious grounds; specify that government shall prove by clear and convincing evidence prove a compelling governmental interest in establishing a burden on the freedom of religion; specify what constitutes a burden.”

The Religious Freedom Act, House Bill 279, could jeopardize enforcement of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act (KCRA) and other civil rights laws, the commission said.

“If passed into law, this legislation has the potential to have the unintended consequence of undermining the hard-won protections that ended legalized racial segregation, sexual discrimination, discrimination against people based upon their religions, and more,” said George W. Stinson, chair of the commission.

The letter to the governor, signed by Executive Director John J. Johnson and Stinson, said: “Potential House Bill 279 claims and defenses are virtually endless. The Muslim landlord who refuses to rent to Christians in violation of the KCRA may claim that he was justified by a sincerely held religious belief. The Christian employer who refuses to hire a Muslim in violation of the KCRA may claim that she was motivated by a sincerely held religious belief. The African American restaurant owner who refuses to serve white customers in violation of the KCRA may assert his right to discriminate because of his sincerely held religious belief. One thing is certain, if HB 279 becomes law, all of these claims and defenses will be raised, litigated and appealed through the judicial system. Much of the costs of this litigation will necessarily be borne by the taxpayers of the commonwealth.”

The bill was presented by its sponsors as a measure to protect religious freedom, but because of its broad language, the commission said individuals and religious organizations may claim a right to engage in discrimination made unlawful by the Kentucky Civil Rights Act on the grounds that a perpetrator’s actions of discrimination are “motivated by a sincerely held religious belief… .”  Such a law could similarly block the enforcement of local civil rights ordinances by Louisville, Lexington, Covington and Vicco, Ky., which protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity, Stinson said.

The letter said: “House Bill 279, as written, will not serve the cause of protecting religious freedom. Rather, it will threaten the religious freedom of all, by giving special protections to those few who may claim that their otherwise unlawful actions are nevertheless justified by a ‘sincerely held religious belief.’ In effect, HB 279 makes persons a law unto themselves, providing a convenient justification for infringing on the civil rights of others in violation of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act.”

The bill recently passed the Kentucky House of Representatives and Senate and now resides with Beshear, who may sign it into passage, veto the bill or allow it to become law without his signature.

The Kentucky Commission on Human Rights urged Kentuckians to urge the governor to veto the Religious Freedom Act by calling the governor’s office at (502) 564-2611. The commission also encouraged Kentuckians to tell their state representatives and senators not to override a veto from the governor.

The state human rights commission, along with the Louisville Human Relations Commission and the Lexington-Fayette Human Rights Commission, on March 5 issued a statement urging the Senate to amend House Bill 279 to affirm the authority of the commonwealth of Kentucky and local governments with civil rights ordinances to fully enforce civil rights laws. However, the bill passed the Senate without such an amendment March 7 with a vote of 29-6. The commission sent a letter March 8 to the governor offering him support in vetoing the legislation. The bill passed the House on Feb. 27 with a vote of 82-7.