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Kentucky Advances 'License to Discriminate' Bill

Kentucky state capitol

A Kentucky Senate committee today advanced a bill that would allow businesses and individuals to discriminate against LGBT customers without being penalized under local antidiscrimination ordinances.

The legislation, Senate Bill 180, would amend the state’s 2013 Religious Freedom Restoration Act to assure that it applies to providers of goods and services to the public, putting their work under the “protected activities” clause of the law, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. The Senate Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection approved it 8-1, sending it on to the full Senate.

Sen. Albert Robinson, the bill’s sponsor, made clear that his intent is to protect those businesses that don’t want to serve same-sex weddings, LGBT pride festivals, or other LGBT events. He said he knows of bakeries, flower shops, and photo studios whose owners wouldn’t want to be associated with same-sex weddings.

“All of these business owners want to treat everyone with full human dignity and respect,” Robinson, a Republican, told the committee, according to the paper. “But their consciences and religious beliefs prevent them from using their skills to promote a celebration that runs counter to what the Bible teaches about marriage. Shouldn’t their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion be respected?”

He also brought up the case of a Lexington T-shirt shop that declined to print T-shirts for an LGBT pride celebration in 2012 because of the owner’s religious beliefs. The local human rights commission found the shop violated Lexington’s antidiscrimination ordinance and imposed a fine; a court overturned the decision, but the court ruling is now on appeal.

Kentucky has no statewide law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but eight cities in the state have such laws — Lexington, Louisville, Covington, Morehead, Frankfort, Danville, Midway, and Vicco, according to the Herald-Leader. Robinson’s bill is a “clear attack” on these cities, Chris Hartman, director of the pro-LGBT Fairness Campaign, told the paper.

“They made it crystal clear during the committee hearing that that’s what their aims are,” he said. “So we’ll be doing everything we can to halt the progress of this legislation.”

After the federal government adopted a Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, several states enacted their own with an eye to protecting private religious practices — say, if a person’s religious ritual involves the use of an otherwise illegal drug, their state or city could not penalize them for using the drug, or if their religion forbids autopsies, a government agency could not mandate an autopsy. Only in recent years have states begun to include language in RFRAs aimed at allowing businesses and individuals to discriminate, with Mississippi’s 2014 RFRA often considered the first “license to discriminate” law.

Last year Indiana and Arkansas both passed RFRAs that opponents said constituted a “license to discriminate,” and both were amended after public outcry. A similar bill in Arizona was vetoed by the governor in 2014. 

Also today, the Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection unanimously approved a bill allowing for religious expression in “artistic or theatrical programs” at public schools, the Herald-Leader reports. That came in reaction to the deletion of Bible verses from a performance of A Charlie Brown Christmas at a Kentucky school last December.

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