A Kentucky Senate committee will today consider a bill that would allow people to “act or refuse to act” in any way their religion justifies, which potentially could make it more difficult to prosecute in crimes against LGBT people.
House Bill 279 proposes legal protection to those who “act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief”.
Sponsored by Democratic Representative Bob Damron the bill was passed on Friday 1 March by the Kentucky House of Representatives 82 to 7, with 11 abstentions.
The bill is due to go before a Senate committee later today.
Opponents of the bill are concerned that in upholding religious freedom, individual rights may be damaged by the bill, and it may make it more difficult to pursue criminal prosecutions.
The Kentucky Human Rights Commission have warned that the legislation “could be used by an individual or entity under the guise of a ‘sincerely held religious belief’ to violate the constitutional and civil rights of other persons”.
Kentucky does not currently have any statewide legislation prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people in jobs or housing. However, local anti-discrimination laws have recently been passed by the towns of Louisville, Lexington, Covington and Vicco. Campaigners are concerned that House Bill 279 could undermine these recent laws.
Kentucky Equality Foundation (KEF) president Jordan Palmer said: “House Bill 279 represents a clear and present danger to the gay and lesbian community and other minority groups around the commonwealth. Thousands of Kentuckians are opposing the legislation.
“What we need is freedom from religion; lawmakers use religion as a means to deny someone a fundamental civil right,” he said.
The KEF’s legal expert Jillian Hall called the bill “a thinly veiled move by the legislature showing their lack of respect or tolerance for the LGBTI community”.
Others have voiced their concerns that the bill poses a threat to children, who could be denied medical treatments by guardians for religious reasons.
Representative Mary Lou Marzian said the bill may cause difficulties for women trying to obtain birth control in Kentucky, where many hospitals are owned by the Catholic Church.
Mr Damron defended his bill by saying that a case in 2012 involving Kentucky’s Amish community, which he said proved the need for religious protections.
The Amish had disputed a Kentucky law which required the use of fluorescent orange signs on slow-moving vehicles, claiming it was against their religious principles to attach the signs to their horse-drawn buggies.
The dispute was eventually resolved through a legislative compromise allowing the Amish to use reflective tape instead of orange signs.
Mr Damron said House Bill 279 would prevent similar cases arising in future.