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The Bill that Covington Leaders Fear Guts LGBT Protections is Passed by Senate

A week after the City of Covington reaffirmed its commitment to protections for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) people, the bill that provoked that action cleared the Kentuckt Senate on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 180, referred to as a "religious freedom bill" by some supporters and as a "license to discriminate" by some opponents, cleared the Senate by a vote of 22-16. 

All 11 Democratic members of the Senate opposed the bill and were joined by 5 Republican senators, including Northern Kentucky's Chris McDaniel (R-Taylor Mill), who represents Covington, and Wil Schroder (R-Wilder). The other Republican senators to oppose the bill were from Louisville and Lexington, cities that also offer protections similar to Covington.

“Shouldn’t a florist, baker and other creative artists’ First-Amendment rights of free exercise of religion be respected?,” said Sen. Albert Robinson (R-London), a sponsor of the bill, before quoting a section of the Kentucky Constitution that prohibits interference with “rights of conscience.” “Yet, that is what many wish to do – to have government to force people to using their creative skills to participate in something that violates their faith conscience.”

He said that he introduced SB 180 in response to a Lexington custom T-shirt shop getting sued for refusing to make shirts celebrating a gay pride event. “This bill helps to promote the time-honored principle of ‘live and let live’ and encourages a balanced environment of mutual respect and civility in our public square,” Robinson said.

In all, there are 8 cities in Kentucky that have adopted so-called "fairness ordinances" that protect LGBT people from discrimination in housing, employment, and other situations. Supporters of such measures fear that SB 180 guts those protections by preventing business owners who discriminate against gay customers from being subject to fines or other penalties.

"This is an incredibly disappointing day in the Kentucky Senate," said Fairness Campaign director Chris Hartman, in a news release. "Despite bipartisan opposition to this License to Discriminate, our Senate has sent the message that Kentucky may not be open for business for everyone. We hope Kentucky House leaders will show greater wisdom and give this piece of legislation as much consideration as it deserves--none."

Covington Mayor Sherry Carran, who was joined by the city commission last week in unanimously reaffirming the city's commitment to its 2003 human rights ordinance, also issued a statement. 

"Our Human Rights Ordinance has been a real positive for Covington and has led to our city being more inclusive and welcoming, both positive attributes," Carran said in a statement. "Allowing discrimination by a business or a government office because they do not endorse a person¹s way of life or agree with a person¹s beliefs is harmful. It's harmful to the individual being discriminated against and harmful to the larger community as a whole."

Mayors of other cities with such ordinances were joined by state business leaders in issuing a statement expressing concern about the bill's passage, but their opposition was not enough to stop the bill.

“I also think that each of us probably interprets the Bible in a way that is most convenient for us,” said Sen. Joe Bowen (R-Owensboro), who voted in favor of the bill. “Having said that, I’m going to cling the premise that this is a ‘live and let live’ piece of legislation. In doing that, I’m going to assume it protects those we are fearful that we are discriminating against with this piece of legislation. The ‘live and let live’ premise, in my opinion, protects all parties involved.”

Sen. Brandon Smith (R-Hazard) voted for SB 180 because it was “a common sense” measure, he said, arguing that everyone would be outraged if the government forced Jewish bakers to make cakes featuring Nazi symbols and minority bakers to make cakes featuring Ku Klux Klan symbols. “Hopefully, we will have some common sense where we can rally around people we know are being unfairly treated – that are being made to do something that we know goes against who they are,” Smith said.

Sen. Reginald Thomas (D-Lexington) said he couldn’t support the bill because it would discriminate against gay people.

“That is no difference than what you say back in the 1930s when there was rampant anti-Semitism in this country or back in the 1950s and ‘60s when blacks were … demanding civil rights,” he said. “We just have to fast forward 50 years now were gays are just demanding their rightful place in our society as equal citizens. This bill is designed to prevent that, and I can’t go along with that.”

Sen. Robinson said he personally believes homosexuality and same-sex marriage are sinful, but disagreed with Thomas’ analysis that SB 180 would legalize some forms of discrimination. “A restaurant owner could not deny service to a transgendered individual,” he said, “and a bakery could not refuse to sell pies and cookies to someone because of their sexual orientation.”

Sen. Schroder,  the Wilder Republican, said the Fayette Circuit Court ruled in favor of the Lexington T-shirt maker by finding the business was within its right not to make a T-shirt promoting gay rights. In voting against SB 108, he said the Senate should wait to see if that ruling is overturned on appeal before considering any legislation. Sen. McDaniel, the Republican from Taylor Mill, had made the same argument when he passed on voting on the bill when it was heard in committee.

Sen. Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville) said she couldn’t support SB 180, in part, because of economic concerns. She said the bill may be seen as discriminatory by  businesses interested in investing in her hometown – the state’s largest city.“I understand the need to balance competing interests in a very diverse society … but I’m concerned Senate Bill 180 goes way too far,” she said. “I’ve heard from constituents and my business community that this is just not needed.”

SB 180 now goes to the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats.

-Staff report and notes from Legislative Research Commission