In a sweeping bipartisan vote, both chambers of the General Assembly overturned Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear’s veto of the controversial religious freedom bill. Earlier this week, the House Democratic caucus met behind closed doors to hold a secret ballot, which ultimately favored bringing the measure back to the House floor. After a half hour of debate, the House rejected the gubernatorial veto by an overwhelming 79-15 margin. Supporters of the legislation affirmed it does not undermine anyone’s civil rights protections, and only safeguards First Amendment rights.
"There have been attempts to take God out of everything," says state Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, who supported the bill. "They want to take God out of the pledge of allegiance, can you believe that? You don't think your religious freedom is under attack? Then maybe you do believe in a boogeyman."
The law allows individuals the right to act or refuse to act on any laws or regulations that violate tenets of their faith. Opponents have rallied for weeks, arguing it could allow for residents to disregard civil rights protections such as local Fairness laws protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered citizens.
Those who lobbied for the House to override Beshear's veto denied those accusations vehemently, however.
Political observers have pointed out the battle over House Bill 279 could be largely symbolic given how few successful cases of a person using their faith to undermine civil rights laws have been upheld.
Louisville Fairness Campaign Director Chris Hartman admits the religious freedom bill won't repeal the city’s fairness ordinance or any other anti-discrimination law in Lexington, Covington or Vicco.
But the gay rights leader says what has worried opponents all along is the law's vague language, which raises legal questions that can now only be untangled by the courts.
"There's not a 100 percent guarantee that HB 279 is going to directly effect local anti-discrimination laws—at least not immediately. What we imagine is someone will challenge those laws based on their sincerely held religious belief and it would be up to a judge," says Hartman. "Most case law in recent years has been in favor of civil rights, but it’s not always been the case and it certainly is irresponsible to open the door even if it’s a crack for discrimination and weakening of anti-discrimination laws."
Paul Chitwood is executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. He says the law simply reinstates previous standards protecting the First Amendment rights for people of faith, and won’t be used to discriminate.
"I don’t think it in any way should be concerning to the LGBT community. I don’t think this is in any form or fashion about discrimination in terms of any group," he says. "In fact, I think this protects against discrimination for all Kentuckians. We were very disappointed the governor fell victim to the fear-mongering that was being stirred by special interests groups."
But national conservative activists have explicitly outlined how religious liberty laws are tools to combat the overarching gay rights movement.
Within a year or two we will see Christian schools attacked for refusing to admit students whose parents are gay. We will see churches suffer the loss of their tax exempt status for refusing to hold gay weddings. We will see private businesses shut down because they refuse to treat as legitimate that which perverts God’s own established plan. In some places this is already happening.
Christians should, starting yesterday, work on a new front. While we should not stop the fight to preserve marriage, and we may be willing to compromise on civil unions, we must start fighting now for protections for religious objectors to gay marriage.
That intention could also backfire, however.
During the House floor debate, state Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, pointed out how opponents could argue their religion compels them to ignore Kentucky's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and perform ceremonies for LGBT couples.
Meanwhile, Hartman says gay rights groups are beginning to take notice of the right-leaning legislature and how state Democrats are acting more like national Republicans.
"The question for me is how much of a difference is there between the Republican and Democratic caucuses," he says. "If the House (Democratic) caucus keeps moving in this conservative direction you won’t be able to slide a sheet of paper between the two parties’ caucuses. At a certain point in time either the Democrats are going to have to start acting like Democrats in the state legislature and support the thing the party platform support or they’ll ultimately become obsolete and lose the majority."
As expected, the Republican-controlled Senate rejected the gubernatorial veto by a 32-6 vote.
"I am disappointed in the General Assembly's override of my veto of House Bill 279. As I explained in my veto message, I have significant concerns that this bill will cause serious unintentional consequences that could threaten public safety, health care and individuals' civil rights," Beshear told WFPL.
The bill will become law in 90 days.