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State House Passes Bill That Could Undermine Covington Human Rights Ordinance

The Kentucky House of Representatives, by a wide margin, approved a bill that could undermine civil protections extended to gays and lesbians in Covington, Louisville, Lexington, and most recently, Vicco.

House Bill 279, dubbed the Religious Freedom Bill, allows Kentuckians to ignore laws and statutes that they perceive as violations of their religions. It reads, "Create a new section of KRS Chapter 446 to specify that government shall not burden a person's or religious organization's freedom of religion; protect the right to act or refuse to act on religious grounds; specify that government shall prove by clear and convincing evidence prove a compelling governmental interest in establishing a burden on the freedom of religion; specify what constitutes a burden."
 
An amendment was adopted to require that burden to a person's freedom of religion be "substantial". The words "religious organizations" were also removed.
 
After passing 82-7 Friday with widespread support from both Republicans and Democrats, the bill now heads to the State Senate. 
 
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky is concerned and issued a statement Friday:

"And though laudable in its purpose, the bill, as currently drafted, would undermine existing civil rights protections in the Commonwealth.  It now moves on to the Senate.

If the Senate chooses to keep the bill’s current language, and not amend it to include specific protections for civil rights laws, a religious individual could claim an exemption from any law or policy that prohibits discrimination, leaving racial minorities, women, LGBT people and others without adequate protections.  We are particularly concerned that this bill could be used to undermine existing LGBT Fairness protections for individuals covered by local statutes in Louisville, Lexington, Covington and Vicco, Kentucky."

According to the legislative record, the bill had many co-sponsors, including Republican Thomas Kerr, a Covington lawyer from Taylor Mill who represents that city and parts of central Kenton County. 
 
All representatives from the Northern Kentucky Legislative Caucus voted to approve the bill:
 
Democrats: Arnold Simpson (Covington), Dennis Keene (Wilder), Rick Rand (Bedford), Thomas McKee (Cynthiana)
 
Republicans: Brian Lindner (Dry Ridge), Sal Santoro (Florence), Diane St. Onge (Lakeside Park), Thomas Kerr (Taylor Mill/Covington), Addia Wuchner (Florence), Joe Fishcer (Ft. Thomas), Adam Koenig (Erlanger) 
 
See the full list of how legislators voted on HB 279: Click Here (PDF)
 
More from the ACLU of Kentucky: "The ACLU of Kentucky seeks modest amendments to ensure the bill strikes the proper balance between individuals’ religious freedom and others’ civil rights protections.  The ACLU seeks to protect the rights of individuals to worship, or not, as they choose, as well as the rights of others to receive civil rights protections by amending HB 279 to explicitly acknowledge that it does not authorize, nor serve as a defense to, religiously motivated actions that undermine civil rights protection.  We want to prevent religion from being used to defyany anti-discrimination laws-federal, state or local."
 
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
 
Photo: Downtown Covington, Kentucky/RCN file