FRANKFORT — Saying he cherishes religious freedom but fears “serious unintended consequences” of a bill to guarantee sincerely held religious beliefs, Gov. Steve Beshear vetoed the measure Friday.
His action immediately came under attack from conservative groups while drawing praise from others who fear the law would undermine enforcement of fair housing and non-discrimination laws and ordinances.
Critics of the bill maintain it is also unnecessary, that religious freedom and rights are guaranteed by the U.S. and Kentucky constitutions.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, immediately announced the Republican-controlled Senate is prepared to override the veto but expects the Democratic-controlled House to act first.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, would say only that he would discuss the veto with Democratic members of the House.
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.
The bill easily passed the House 82-7 while the Senate voted for it 29-6, both majorities more than enough to override Beshear’s veto. Kentucky’s constitution requires only a simple majority — 51 in the 100-member House and 20 in the 38-member Senate — to override a governor’s veto.
It didn’t take long for Stivers to say that won’t be difficult.
“The Senate is prepared to override the veto of HB279 if and when the Speaker moves to do so,” Stivers said in a statement released by his spokeswoman. “As a House bill, that chamber must act on the bill first.”
It did not take long for Martin Cothran of the conservative Family Foundation to react.
“This puts churches around the Commonwealth of Kentucky on notice that the First Amendment religious freedoms they thought their government respected may now be negotiable,” Cothran said in a press release moments after the governor’s announcement. “We just hope elected lawmakers in the Legislature will act quickly to correct the Governor’s action. We think they will.”
But in announcing his veto, Beshear provided a list of those organizations and groups which urged him to veto HB 279 including associations of city and county officials, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, teachers’ groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, fairness coalitions, and even some individual churches.
“I value and cherish our rights to religious freedom, and I appreciate the good intentions of House Bill 279 and the members of the General Assembly who supported this bill to protect our constitutional rights to practice our religion,” said Beshear in his veto message. “However, I have significant concerns that this bill will cause serious unintentional consequences that could threaten public safety, health care, and individuals’ civil rights,” Beshear continued. “As written, the bill will undoubtedly lead to costly litigation. I have heard from many organizations and government entities that share those same concerns. Therefore, after giving this measure thoughtful analysis and consideration, today I vetoed the bill.”
Critics of the legislation, led by gay rights groups and local government officials and associations, said it could be used to challenge anti-discrimination laws and ordinances. Local officials also feared it might be used by disgruntled employees to avoid some duties or disciplinary action.
Damron has called those fears overblown and said the law is similar to a federal law and laws in at least 16 other states.
Beshear, however, said HB 279 differs from those laws because of its vague language and imprecise legal standards which might be used to weaken civil rights laws or hamper economic development.
“Citizens and governmental entities are entitled to a clear understanding of the boundaries of permissible conduct,” Beshear said. “This bill, as written, while well intended, is undermined by precarious legal wording.”
Beshear said he is willing to work with lawmakers to craft an alternative bill which addresses his fears of unintended consequences.
Lawmakers will have the chance to override the veto on Monday and Tuesday when they return to Frankfort for the final two days of the 2013 General Assembly.
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.