By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
It probably surprised no one, but the General Assembly Tuesday night easily overrode Gov. Steve Beshear’s veto of the so-called “religious freedom” bill.
House Bill 279 was sponsored by Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, and would permit someone to disregard some state laws which conflict with their “sincerely held religious beliefs” unless the government could demonstrate “by clear and convincing evidence a compelling state interest” in enforcing the law.
Last week, Beshear vetoed the bill, saying he cherished religious freedom but shared concerns of opponents of the bill that it might be used to undermine non-discrimination laws about employment and fair housing.
Immediately, Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said the Senate would override the veto, assuming the House would do so first – because the bill originated in that chamber.
On Monday, after a closed caucus to discuss the veto question, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he would call the bill for a vote on the override. Some members of the caucus said the vote to call the bill up was 27-26.
But when Stumbo brought the bill to the House floor Tuesday, 79 members – 36 Democrats and 43 Republicans – voted to override the veto.
Lawmakers from both parties defended the bill, asserting it would not lead to any of the problems feared by critics but only protected religious persons’ rights to follow their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, said contemporary American society “made us take (prayer) out of school and want to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Others like Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Louisville, said religious rights are already guaranteed under the U.S. and Kentucky constitutions and the law could be used to discriminate against gay people.
Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, voted for the original bill when it passed the House, but “since that time I’ve become convinced my rights are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the constitution of the state.
The bill’s fate was similar in the Republican controlled Senate an hour later. Democratic Senators Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, and Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, spoke against the bill. McGarvey cautioned against legal problems the bill might present while Stein expressed concern about the law’s effect on locally passed fairness ordinances, guaranteeing civil rights to gay people.
But in the end, the veto was overridden in the Senate, 32-6.
Voting to sustain Beshear’s veto in religiously conservative Kentucky was a tough choice even for some who may have harbored misgivings about the unintended consequences of the bill. They faced the prospect of the vote being used against them in the next campaign.
It was the first time one of Beshear’s vetoes has been overridden. He released the following statement:
“I am disappointed in the General Assembly’s override of my veto of HB279,” said Beshear. “As I explained in my veto message, I have significant concerns that this bill will cause serious unintentional consequences that could threaten public safety, health care, and individuals’ civil rights.”
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.