Bill allowing businesses to deny service based on religious convictions clears committee; Fairness Campaign director calls it "clear attack on LGBT rights"

02/25/2016 07:43 PM

FRANKFORT — A bill that would protect businesses that deny services based on their religious faith cleared the Senate Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection Committee on Thursday despite a lawsuit currently litigating that very issue.

Senate Bill 180 heads to the Senate floor after an 8-1 vote with four senators voting “pass” because of the ongoing court battle involving a Lexington printer that declined to make T-shirts for a 2012 gay pride festival.

Sen. Albert Robinson, chairman of the committee and SB 180’s sponsor, said he brought the legislation because bakers, florists and others have faced stiff penalties in other states for declining to serve same-sex weddings, citing religious objections to the unions. SB 180 would bar fines, penalties, liabilities and damages against those who deny service based on their religious convictions.

He said local fairness ordinances in eight Kentucky cities, which prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, are “forcing small business owners to act contrary to their consciences,” alluding to the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission’s decision that Hands On Originals violated the city’s fairness ordinance in declining to print T-shirts for the Lexington Pride Festival in 2012.

“Could the people who have brought suit against these small business owners have gotten their wedding cakes, photographs, floral arrangements or T-shirts from other vendors? Of course,” said Robinson, R-London. “Very easily, but there is an agenda at work here that seeks to force people with sincerely held religious conviction to either abandon these beliefs, violate them or face state action that could close their businesses and destroy them financially.”

But the most prominent discrimination case in Kentucky cited by Robinson is currently in the state Court of Appeals.

A Fayette Circuit Court judge overturned the human right’s commission’s 2014 order against Hands On Originals, which would have prevented the company from similar denials in the future and mandated diversity training for its staff within a year. The commission has appealed that decision.

Attorneys representing Hands On Originals cited the state’s religious freedom law, passed in 2013, and constitutional protections of expression.

While senators who voted “pass” — Sens. Stan Humphries, Chris McDaniel, Dennis Parrett and Max Wise — said they supported the legislation, they’d rather wait until the litigation is settled before changing state law.

“It is a good piece of legislation that we should pass, but we in this chamber have had a long-standing policy of not passing bills when there’s pending litigation,” said McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, “and I’m fearful to begin down that road.”

Sen. Perry Clark, a Louisville Democrat and the lone “no” vote, questioned the necessity of the SB 180, saying that “most of this legislation is a broad-based statement of what’s currently in our Constitution.”

Stan Cave, general counsel for the Family Foundation of Kentucky who helped craft SB 180, said he agreed to a point.

“I think we’ve also seen some cases where it hasn’t been, and at the end of this bill you’ll see that is says that a person cannot be held in contempt, made to pay attorneys fees, made to pay punitive damages and damages,” he said in response to Clark.

“I think to the extent we have these conflicts, and maybe they’re in the courts to reconcile those conflicts, a person who’s exercising their right of conscience shouldn’t have to face bankruptcy because of the punitive measures that are being brought to bear through contempt and jail time and things of that nature, but yet allow the issues to be litigated, perhaps.”

Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, said he hoped SB 180 doesn’t gain traction in the legislature, calling the legislation “a clear attack on (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights” that have been secured in eight Kentucky cities through ordinances.

Hartman said his group, which is part of the Fairness Coalition, will urge its supporters to contact their senators and representatives in opposition to SB 180. Asked about the prospects of the legislation becoming law, Hartman said he hopes they’re “slim.”

“Now that they have made it clear that this is an attack on gay and transgender Kentuckians and it is laid bare, I think that folks will rail against this,” he told reporters after the meeting.

“I would hope that the General Assembly would not move contrary to where Kentuckians are clearly going, which is forward for fairness and to protect all their residents equally,” he added.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he has not heard much discussion within his caucus on SB 180, but the legislation will get “a full and fair hearing.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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