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Kentucky ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill Poised For Passage, If Republicans Want It

Alix Mattingly

A state senator is planning to once again propose a bill during the upcoming legislative session that he says will protect religious freedoms.

The bill would nullify local “fairness” ordinances across the state that protect Kentuckians from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Though it has failed in recent years, the measure will have a better chance during the upcoming General Assembly when both the legislature and governor’s office will be controlled by Republicans for the first time in state history.

Sen. Al Robinson, a Republican from London and sponsor of the “religious freedom” bill in previous years, said he’s not concerned with backlash like North Carolina has seen after passing similar legislation.

“There’s more people that are backing down when they should not be backing down for the sake of the threats and the financial threats,” Robinson said. “And to me there’s some price that’s just not worth paying.”

The religious freedom bill would protect businesses from being sued or having to pay punitive damages for violating local anti-discrimination ordinances based on sexual orientation. Sometimes called “fairness” ordinances, the laws protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination by businesses and in accommodations.

Kentucky has eight cities with fairness laws: Louisville, Lexington, Covington, Morehead, Frankfort, Danville, Midway and the small Appalachian town of Vicco.

Repercussions in North Carolina

In 2015, the North Carolina legislature passed a law that nullified the city of Charlotte’s fairness ordinance, which allowed transgender people to use public bathrooms that match the gender with which they identify.

The law has led to a prolonged backlash from some national companies protesting anti-LGBTQ policies. Several companies have scaled back investments and canceled events in the state, including PayPal, the NBA and NCAA.

The NCAA has canceled seven events, including the first and second rounds of the Division I men’s basketball tournament that were supposed to take place in Greensboro in March.

Robinson said opposition to the laws like the one in North Carolina is the product of a small but powerful minority.

“Unfortunately they have control of some things that are near and dear to our hearts, but if that’s the price of our First Amendment right, I’m willing to pay it,” Robinson said.

Robinson’s religious freedom bill passed the state Senate this year with a vote of 22-16.

All 11 Democrats in the Senate and a handful of Republicans, mostly from urban areas, voted against the bill including Sens. Alice Forgy Kerr of Lexington, Julie Raque Adams of Louisville, Chris McDaniel of Taylor Mill, Wil Shroder of Wilder and Carroll Gibson of Leitchfield.

The bill was never taken up by the state House, which was at the time controlled by Democrats.

The New Majority

Louisville Democratic Rep. Jim Wayne said he’s not sure how the new Republican majority, which has 23 members who have never served before, will act on socially conservative issues.

“We really don’t know what their thinking is, whether they’re coming from an extreme repressive values system or whether there are people who are more open to negotiation and flexibility,” Wayne said.

House Speaker-elect Jeff Hoover, a Republican from Jamestown, has declined to say whether the caucus will go along with the religious freedom bill in the upcoming session. House Republicans will decide in the next weeks what their priorities for the upcoming session will be.

“The fact that the leadership is not saying in one way is probably indicative that they’re still trying to figure out their own members’ minds,” Wayne said.

Robinson said he’s confident the bill would have a better chance in the House now that Republicans are on top in the chamber, but said he’ll leave it to leadership to decide whether to make it a priority for this session.

“It’s not like we’ve got to get it through this year or we won’t get it, Robinson said. “No, we feel like that we for years to come will have the nationwide and statewide support to let the people have a voice.”

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

Email Ryland at
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