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Kentucky LGBT Advocates March With An Eye Toward Uncertain 2018

AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
A person holds up the Flag of the Commonwealth ofKentucky, the United States Flag and the Rainbow Flag during a press conference discussing the Supreme Court decision to legalize same sex marriage Friday, June 26, 2015, in Louisville, Ky.

A Lexington LGBT rights group says state bills affecting their community largely wound up on the back-burner this year, but they fear 2018 could be a different story.

The new Republican majority made it clear their first session in possession of the House of Representatives in generations would lean heavily on their business and jobs agenda. Although bills placing new restrictions on abortion and guaranteeing the right of religious expression in schools found their way to the governor's inbox, the General Assembly did not wade as deeply into “culture war” issues as it could have.

"The general belief from most of us is that we survived this current session over in Frankfort," says Josh Mers with Lexington Fairness.

Yet he worries that’s about to change.

"I think we're really getting geared up and prepared, that the next session, come 2018, is going to be a very big assault on social issues coming from the new majority and you're going to have issues such as bathroom legislation. You're going to have municipal preemption laws," he says.

The comments mirror 2016 predictions by Fairness Campaign Director Chris Hartman, who warned last November of a coming "multifaceted, multi-front fight" in Frankfort over LGBT issues.

With Republicans publicly de-emphasizing social issues in favor of economic items, those concerns mostly took a backseat to battles over "right-to-work" legislation, a repeal of the prevailing wage, and other priorities. Religious freedom and transgender bathroom bills filed by a Democrat went nowhere.

But Sen. Albert Robinson, a Republican from London, told WUKY in January he expects to reintroduce his religious freedom bill during a longer session.

"Some of them we will wait until next year," he said. "I'm as strong for any and all of those bills as I have ever been, but there's only enough room for a few bills to get through."

That was ahead of a packed 30-day session. Lawmakers will return for a full 60-day budget session in 2018.

For his part, Gov. Matt Bevin has reliably discouraged legislators from taking up bathroom bills like North Carolina's House Bill 2, which lawmakers partially repealed following a loud backlash in the business community. Asked whether he would veto a bathroom bill if it landed on his desk, the governor told WUKY, "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."

Some supporters of socially conservative bills in the General Assembly have pushed back against critics who label them as "anti-LGBT."

In floor remarks before casting his vote for SB180, a religious freedom bill, in 2016, 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."

The March For Equality + Unity

Lexington LGBT rights groups are set to rally on Sunday in concert with more than 100 other planned events across the country. The Lexington Rally March for Equality and Unity is one of three demonstrations in Kentucky, with Louisville and Madisonville also taking part.

Though organizers frame the gathering as more of a celebration than a protest, Mers says one goal is to remind lawmakers in Frankfort of a community that remains active and attentive. Among their longstanding priorities is a statewide fairness law. Mers argues the current patchwork of city ordinances leaves LGBT residents with varying levels of protection from discrimination depending on their location.

"If you work at Fayette Mall but you live in the Brannon Crossing area just across the county line, you actually are protected from being fired through Lexington's fairness ordinance, but you are not protected from being evicted simply because you're lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender," he says.

The rally gets underway at 2 p.m. Sunday at Lexington's Robert F. Stephens Courthouse Plaza.