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Kentucky Gay Rights Advocates Gear Up For "Multi-Front" Fight In 2017

Josh James
Activists unfurl flags into above the Capitol Rotunda during a rally for LGBT rights during the 2016 legislative session.

Many communities in the commonwealth have moved to protect LGBT residents by enacting fairness ordinances, but one well-known Kentucky gay rights advocate says the November elections have put those gains in jeopardy.

Fairness Campaign Director Chris Hartman heads to the nation’s capital this Friday to report on the state’s role as a leader in organizing rural LGBT communities, but he says the meeting of the White House Rural Council will take place in a climate of trepidation for his group.

"We're going to have a multifaceted, multi-front fight on our hands in the Kentucky General Assembly," he predicts.

Hartman first points to one piece of legislation he’s confirmed will make another appearance in 2017 – Senate Bill 180, permitting business owners to decline to provide services that conflict with their religious beliefs. The measure proved a non-starter in the Democratically-controlled House in March, but its chances would appear much improved when Republicans claim their supermajority in the chamber next January.

Although the upcoming session is short – just 30 days – Hartman anticipates a deluge of bills aimed at challenging the initiatives his group has championed over the years.

"States like Oklahoma this year faced 21 bills. Other states, Texas I think, had more than 40," he notes. "This year, Kentucky had more than half a dozen anti-LGBT bills."

The "anti-LGBT" descriptor is one that rankles many backers of the legislation.

In floor remarks before casting his vote for SB180 this year, Hazard Republican Brandon Smith told his colleagues, "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."

Sen. Albert Robinson, a Republican from London, has argued Kentucky law already shields business owners who refrain from delivering services that violate their conscience, telling WUKY last March that that SB180 simply "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."

But Hartman’s organization and its allies see other business interests at stake. They warn that passing the bill, and others like it, could make Kentucky the next North Carolina, a state which faced significant corporate backlash for overturning discrimination bans.

Republican Senator Julie Raque Adams aired the same concern during the 2016 session, saying she worried SB180 might have a "detrimental impact on critical and ongoing economic development efforts in my hometown of Louisville."

Other recent Kentucky bills have aimed to create separate marriage forms for straight and same-sex couples, usher in different marriage statuses, and mandate which bathrooms transgender students can use.

Though Hartman stops short of predicting the language that will emerge in future bills, he says GOP control of the legislature and the Governor's Mansion will put new pressure on gay rights groups.   

"While many Republicans do support us, some in the party are of a faction in which they have become more stringent on their anti-LGBT sentiments and their desire to create policy," he says. 

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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