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Religious Freedom, Transgender Bathroom Bills In The Background But Not Forgotten

Josh James
Kentucky Senators bow their heads during the opening prayer of the 2017 legislative session.

Kentucky Republican leaders have tamped down expectations surrounding contentious “religious freedom” and transgender bathroom legislation in the weeks leading up to the 2017 session, instead emphasizing their business-friendly docket. But the cultural hot buttons, which could also impact the state's economy, appear alive and well in the General Assembly. Bills legislating transgender bathroom use and permitting business owners to refuse delivery of products or services that conflict with their religious beliefs have proved to be lightning rods in North Carolina, Indiana, and elsewhere, with some provoking notable public and corporate backlash. Media outlets have estimated the financial fallout in North Carolina, which limited bathroom users to public restrooms that match the sex listed on their birth certificates, as high as nearly$400 million.
So far, Kentucky Republicans have pointed to job growth as the main theme of the 2017 session, but at least two bills – a right of conscience and bathroom measure, both filed by Middlesboro Democrat Rick Nelson – could revive those discussions.
Sen. Albert Robinson tells WUKY his religious freedom bill, which won approval in the GOP-controlled Senate in 2016, has been shelved this year but will likely return during a longer session.
"Some of them we will wait until next year," the London Republican explains. "I'm as strong for any and all of those bills as I have ever been, but there's only enough room for just a few bills to get through."Robinson says he does plan to reintroduce his religious expression bill, guaranteeing students in public schools and universities the right to express religious and political viewpoints in assignments, artwork, theater productions, and on their clothing.
For his part Gov. Matt Bevin has sounded wholly uninterested in legislating bathroom use in the commonwealth, waving away the idea as needless and "silly" during a year-end press conference. Asked Thursday if he would veto any transgender bathroom measure that might land in his inbox this year, the Republican said, "I don't have any idea what it would say, so I'm not going to comment on something that hasn't been written, hasn't been passed, and that I haven't seen."
LGBT advocates fear some version of the bills will eventually make their way through this or future GOP-led General Assemblies.

In November, Fairness Campaign director Chris Hartman predicted a "multifaceted, multi-front fight" on LGBT issues under the new Republican majorities. He warns the state could forfeit millions of dollars if the bills were to hit the books and jeopardize local efforts to curb discrimination.
"It would subvert fairness ordinances in the eight Kentucky cities where they exist," Hartman tells the Louisville Courier-Journal.

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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