FRANKFORT (AP) — A divided Kentucky Senate passed a measure Tuesday seeking to expand legal protections for businesses that invoke religious beliefs in wanting to deny services to gay, lesbian or transgender customers.
The bill cleared the Republican-controlled Senate on a 22-16 vote. It arose in response to last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
Opponents said the legislation would promote bigotry, threaten anti-discrimination ordinances in several cities and potentially drive away convention business from Kentucky.
Supporters countered that the measure would protect a basic right to freedom of conscience.
The bill seeks to protect businesses from civil damages and legal fees for refusing to participate in same-sex marriage celebrations due to conscientious objections, said Sen. Albert Robinson, the bill’s lead sponsor.
“There is an agenda at work here that seeks to force people with sincerely held religious convictions to either abandon those beliefs, violate them or face state action that could close their businesses and destroy them financially,” said Robinson, R-London.
Kentucky became ground zero in the backlash against last year’s Supreme Court ruling when a federal judge found Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis in contempt of court for refusing to obey his order that she issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She was jailed for five days and her refusal to obey the order prompted a national uproar.
The measure, which deals with businesses, now shifts to the Democratic-led House. House Speaker Greg Stumbo later questioned the bill’s constitutionality and expressed doubts that the bill would get a House vote.
The legislation seeks to expand the state’s 2013 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The contentious proposal set off a nearly hour-long Senate debate, with both sides citing religious reasons for their stands.
During one exchange, Democratic Sen. Reginald Thomas of Lexington pointedly asked Robinson if he believed homosexuality and same-sex marriage are sinful.
Robinson replied that his belief as a Christian is that both are a sin. Robinson said he recognizes the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, but added “we do not have to like it.”
Thomas denounced the bill for promoting “bigotry and hatred,” while Sen. Morgan McGarvey warned it would result in “dangerous overreach.” Opponents said the measure would open the door to challenge religious and racial discrimination protections in place in Kentucky since the 1960s.
“This bill overreaches beyond our well-established religious protections and could invite discrimination and overrule existing anti-discrimination ordinances,” said McGarvey, D-Louisville.
Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, a gay-rights group, said the message sent by the bill’s supporters is that “Kentucky may not be open for business for everyone.” He urged the House to kill the bill.
Sen. Julie Raque Adams of Louisville was among a handful of Republican senators opposing the bill. She worried the bill could spark a backlash that would hurt economic development efforts in her hometown.
Some opponents said the bill was premature due to an ongoing legal fight involving a Lexington business that refused to print T-shirts for a gay pride festival, citing the owner’s religious objections.
The Lexington Human Rights Commission found the business violated the city’s ordinance requiring service to gays and lesbians, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. A judge overturned that decision, ruling there was no evidence the business refused the T-shirt order due to the sexuality of the would-be customers. Rather, the business objected to the shirt’s message, the newspaper reported. The case is on appeal.
The legislation is Senate Bill 180.