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Kentucky Religious Liberty Debate Stuck In Legislature, For Now

Associated Press

Bills intended to shield religious business owners who turn down gay customers from legal challenges have grabbed the national spotlight in recent days - and Kentucky is no stranger to the debate.

High profile legislative battles in Georgia and Mississippi have rekindled discussion over so-called “religious liberty bills,"  many of which have sprung up in statehouses in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage. In mid-March Senate Bill 180, a measure reinforcing the rights of religious objectors, advanced through Kentucky's upper chamber despite bipartisan opposition.

Sponsor Sen. Albert Robinson maintained the bill merely reaffirms protections already on the books. He told reporters the measure "recodifies and restates" constitutional safeguards, adding, "It really puts it there where it's easy to read, easy to see. And if they want to challenge [it], let the people challenge that law instead of the little business person."

Under the London Republican's interpretation, the measure would only permit bakers, florists, and other businesses to deny services when the product in question would violate their convictions. "When it comes to where we want this cake that's got a neo-nazi emblem on it, and say it's a Jewish baker, they'd have a right to refuse that," he explained. 

But several lawmakers worried that, if the law passed, Kentucky could end up facing the same public outcry and swift corporate backlash that have greeted similar bills elsewhere. Wednesday, CEOs of PepsiCo, Whole Foods, Levi Strauss, and others signed a letter lamenting Mississippi's sweeping new law, dubbed the "Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act."

Sen. Julie Raque Adams, a Jefferson County Republican, supported Kentucky's 2013 religious freedom bill but told colleagues last month the new language "goes way too far."

"I'm very concerned that this bill will have a detrimental impact on critical and ongoing economic development efforts in my hometown of Louisville," she said.

Explaining his "no" vote, Lexington Democrat Reggie Thomas took a stronger tack, saying the commonwealth would be moving in the wrong direction.

"We're going backwards and what this bill really does is eviscerate all the civil rights laws that have existed for 50 years," he declared on the Senate floor. "You can now... be allowed to discriminate based on however your conscience feels."

SB180 moved out of the Senate on a 22-16 vote and is unlikely to receive a hearing in the Democratic-led House this session. If Republicans take the chamber in November, however, religious liberty legislation would have a much clearer path to the governor’s desk.

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.
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