Gov. being pressured on religious freedom bill

By BEN FINLEY Associated Press

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Gov. Steve Beshear is being pressured from both sides of a controversial bill that would strengthen legal protections for religious freedom in Kentucky.

Civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, are urging Beshear to veto the measure. They say it could allow someone claiming religious freedom to discriminate against gays and lesbians, undermining civil rights protections in cities such as Lexington.

Religious and conservative groups, including The Family Foundation, are asking the governor to sign the bill. They say it gives stronger legal standing to people in court who claim the law puts a burden on their religious practices. The courts would still have to decide on the matter.

Legal experts have said the laws have made little difference in the 16 states that have them.

The General Assembly passed the bill on Friday. Beshear told reporters on Tuesday that he still needs to review the proposal.

“I appreciate the folks who are interested in it, both for and against it, and I’m going to take a good hard look it,’’ he told reporters.

Rep. Robert Damron, D-Nicholasville, sponsored the bill. He said it is a response to a former state law, upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court, that required the Amish to display bright orange safety triangles on their black buggies so motorists could better see them.

The law has since been changed to accommodate the Amish, but not before several Amish men went to jail rather than display the triangles, which they said went against their religious beliefs.

“All this bill would do is to return long-standing legal protections to people of faith that the Kentucky Supreme Court took away in a decision last October,’’ Martin Cothran of The Family Foundation said in a press release Tuesday.

The Fairness Coalition, a group of organizations working for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality in Kentucky, opposes the bill. The group has scheduled a press conference in the Capitol rotunda for Wednesday at 10 a.m. to press for a veto.

In a Tuesday press release, the group said the bill “could make discrimination legal’’ if people claim their discrimination is based on a sincerely held religious belief.

Christopher Lund, a law professor at Michigan’s Wayne State University, examined all 16 states with religious freedom laws in 2010 for the South Dakota Law Review. He found that they’re often underused, if used at all. And the people who do claim religious infringement lose in court more than they win, he wrote.

Two courts in New Mexico have so far upheld a state law that bans discrimination of gays and lesbians, even though a Christian wedding photographer claimed the law burdened her from practicing her faith. She had refused to photograph the commitment ceremony of a lesbian couple and was fined under the law by the state’s human rights commission.

The legislation is House Bill 279.