The Kentucky State Senate voted 22 to 16 on Tuesday to approve a bill that would protect people who refuse services in the name of religion in certain situations, and could partially override local laws designed to protect LGBT people from discrimination.
However, lawmakers were unclear what the bill's ultimate impacts would be. The senate also adopted an amendment that states the bill would not apply to those providing “standard goods or services” in the ordinary course of business or at a place of public accommodation, resort, or amusement.
The bill advances next to the state house.
Republican Senator Albert Robinson said the bill aims to protect individuals who want to refuse services to same-sex couples — such as wedding cakes. “This protects people in business who don’t want to go beyond their conscience,” he said on the senate floor.
Robinson sponsored the bill, he told fellow lawmakers, because "the homosexual community makes it an issue.”
Senate Bill180 is one of dozens bills filed in legislatures around the country to protect people of faith — a Republican backlash to the Supreme Court’s ruling last summer that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
Democrats opposed the measure, including Sen. Reginald Thomas, who argued it would allow discrimination against LGBT people and possibly Jews. “I hope this senate would not pass a bill that promotes hatred and bigotry."
This was the vote:
SB 180 says that no ordinance or public agency shall restrict the rights of people who provide “customized, artistic, expressive, creative, ministerial, or spiritual goods or services.”
Lawmakers questioned whether the bill — particularly given the amendment limiting its scope — would expand the rights of Kentuckians.
But many LGBT advocates have been alarmed.
Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU, said the amendment approved Tuesday is “a slight improvement on the current bill since it clarifies that not all public accommodations have a right to discriminate."
“Nonetheless,” she added by email, “ it still would allow businesses open to the public to pick and choose whom they will serve without regard to local nondiscrimination ordinances or other laws prohibiting such discrimination.”
The bill essentially builds on the state’s 2013 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prevents the government from burdening a person’s exercise of faith. Twenty other states have similar laws, with most being narrowly tailored to mirror a federal law of the same name, and most have unexplored legal impacts. Lawsuits have not established that they allow LGBT discrimination.
However, SB 180 may go further than those religious freedom laws by spelling out specific individuals who are protected — including those who create customized and expressive products — and overriding parts of laws local laws.
Speaking to preempting those local laws, the bill states, “Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, no statute, regulation, ordinance, order, judgment, or other law or action by any court, commission, or other public agency shall impair, impede, infringe upon, or otherwise restrict the exercise of protected rights by any protected activity provider.”
LGBT advocates warn this bill will gut nondiscrimination laws in Covington, Danville, Frankfort, Lexington, Louisville, Midway, Morehead, and Vicco.
As WCPO recently reported, “The bill comes after the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission ordered a Christian T-shirt company to get diversity training for refusing to print shirts for a gay pride festival. A state judge overturned the order, but an appeals court is reviewing the case.”
Dominic Holden is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Dominic Holden at email@example.com.
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