GOP lawmakers pre-file bill protecting county clerks, clergy in same-sex marriage; Fairness Campaign hopes for vote on fairness law in 2016

07/16/2015 11:28 AM

UPDATED: A pair of Republicans in the state House pre-filed a bill on Wednesday that would allow county clerks to refuse to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples based on their religious views toward marriage.

The proposed legislation — sponsored by House Minority Caucus Chairman Stan Lee, R-Lexington, and Rep. David Meade, R-Stanford – amends the state’s religious freedom law, passed in 2013, to add the issuance of marriage licenses and solemnization of marriages for same-sex couples to acts deemed “a substantial burden for which there is no compelling government interest” for those who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

“There are reports of as many as half of all county clerks who want a legislative solution to this issue,” Lee said in a statement. “There is no doubt many others who are afraid to speak out due to the threat of civil lawsuits or criminal prosecution. Their fears are well founded, as the ACLU lawsuits are already flying.”

Gov. Steve Beshear’s office has disputed reports that 57 of Kentucky’s 120 county clerks have signed a letter requesting a special session, instead saying only 10 had submitted their signatures. The governor has declined to call a special session on the issue after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, one of a few county clerks that have refused to issue marriage licenses since the Supreme Court’s June 26 decision, has been sued by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of heterosexual and homosexual couples that have been denied marriage licenses by Davis.

The pre-filed bill also protects pastors who decline to marry same-sex couples.

“(Beshear) has taken the position that elected officials give up a portion of their religious freedom when they take office,” Meade said in a statement. “If we truly believe in the 1st Amendment right to freedom of religion, then shouldn’t our clergy, as well as our county clerks, be entitled to this added protection?”

Rep. Addia Wuchner, R-Burlington, has also pre-filed a bill earlier this month that would protect ministers who decline to marry same-sex couples. That legislation does not include provisions relating to the issuance of marriage licenses.

Kentucky may have seized national media attention after county clerks first refused to issue marriage licenses, but it’s not the only state that will grapple with the issue legislatively. Lawmakers in states new to same-sex marriage like Georgia and Tennessee, for instance, have also proposed legislation allowing ministers to deny marrying same-sex couples in so-called “pastor protection” bills.

“In Georgia we’re going to come down clearly on the side of the separation of church and state and as long as you have constitutional scholars debating among themselves whether this is covered then I think we need to remove all uncertainty and all doubt,” Republican Georgia House Speaker David Ralston said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal Constitution Monday.

In Kentucky, the high court’s ruling has galvanized supporters on both sides of the divisive issue of same-sex marriage.

Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, said he anticipates a full hearing in the House Judiciary Committee in the upcoming 60-day session for a proposed statewide fairness bill, which would add protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Kentucky’s civil rights law.

That would be the first vote such legislation has received in the 16 years it has been introduced, Hartman said, adding his hopes for a vote in the House. The 2014 version of the bill, House Bill 171, received an information-only hearing in the judiciary panel, he said.

House Judiciary Chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, said in an interview with Pure Politics Thursday that his committee did not take a vote on HB 171 because he did not believe the legislation had enough votes to advance.

“I do think it’s worthy of consideration of a hearing and a vote this session,” Tilley said, adding his view that such a bill presents not only a fairness matter, but also an economic development issue.

Hartman said the Supreme Court’s ruling presented a “mixed bag” as both proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage make their cases for legislative remedies in the immediate aftermath. He called the pre-filed proposals “a ludicrous waste of taxpayers’ time and dollars” and said clergy are already protected from conducting same-sex marriages on religious grounds.

“I’ve been doing this work for nearly seven years, and in all of that time I have never seen a piece of anti-LGBT legislation filed six months before the General Assembly,” he told Pure Politics in a phone interview. “Clearly we have a handful of bills that are already in the works or not just in the works but have already been filed, and that’s a frightening prospect and should make clear to folks what the opposition wants to do and that this is their agenda for 2016. They will work as hard as possible to restrict the rights of LGBT Kentuckians in any way that they can.

“Now, long-term, I do believe that the Supreme Court ruling will help as more and more LGBT get married and more people know folks who have been married, they’re going to start to see that the only thing that happens when same-gender couples get married is that they get married.”

Pure Politics Managing Editor Nick Storm contributed to this report.

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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