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Senate Says Amen To Religious Liberty Bill, Opponents See "License To Discriminate"

Josh James

Kentucky businesses could decline to provide services that conflict with the owner's sincerely-held religious beliefs under a bill passed out of the Senate Tuesday.

Prompted in part by the ongoing case against Hands On Originals, a Lexington-based clothing company that turned down a request to print shirts for a 2012 gay pride event, Senate Bill 180 bolsters language in the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Sponsor London Republican Albert Robinson stressed that shops would not deny LGBT customers entrance or service, only requested products that "violate [owners'] conscience."

Sen. Reggie Thomas, a Democrat, raised the specter of 60s-era discrimination against African-Americans, arguing the measure is crafted to stop a new group from achieving legal parity in the commonwealth.

"... gays are just demanding their rightful place in our society as equal citizens," he told his Senate colleagues. "And this bill is designed to prevent that and I can't go along with that."

Hazard Republican Brandon Smith took issue with the characterization.

"My vote today is not out of hate. It's not directed toward any group whatsoever. It's to make sure that every single group, whatever their values is [sic], whatever their ideas are, that they're all the same and that they have the right to run their business without being threatened or put into a tough spot that goes contrary to their beliefs," he said.

If enacted, the bill could affect Lexington's local fairness law, which requires businesses to provide equal accommodations to LGBT residents. In a press statement, Fairness Campaign Director Chris Hartman wrote: "This is an incredibly disappointing day in the Kentucky Senate. Despite bi-partisan opposition to this 'License to Discriminate,' our Senate has sent the message that Kentucky may not be open for business for everyone."

The Family Foundation described the final tally as a victory for religious tolerance, with spokesman Martin Cothran adding, "SB 180 will hopefully prevent at least some of the extreme forms of anti-religious bigotry we are starting to see directed toward people of faith who own businesses that offer creative services."

Unlike many bills that win overwhelming support in the GOP-dominated Senate, SB 180 passed with 22 ayes and 16 nays and can expect stronger opposition in the Democratic-controlled House.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.