It is official. This July Kentucky’s brand new Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) will go into effect. The state’s legislature put its final stamp of approval on the bill when it overturned, by a wide margin, Governor Steve Beshear’s veto on March 26th.
Originally called House Bill 279 (HB279), Kentucky’s RFRA states:
Government shall not substantially burden a person’s freedom of religion. The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be substantially burdened unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest. A “burden” shall include indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, or an exclusion from programs or access to facilities. – Kentucky HB279 Draft as of 4-4-2013
At first glance this sounds great. The state of Kentucky cannot “burden” a person’s freedom to practice his or her religion or limit the right to act or to refuse to act due to “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Pagan children can miss school on Samhain. If one’s jury duty falls on Beltane, we can ask to be excused.
Before everyone packs their bags and moves to Kentucky, let’s take a closer look. State Rep. Bob Damron, a conservative democrat from Nicholasville, sponsored HB279 after the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld a ruling concerning the Amish community. In 2008, nine Amish men were arrested after refusing to comply with a state law requiring reflective orange triangles on their buggies.
The local chapter of the ACLU defended these men stating that, “This case is about the right of Kentuckians to freely exercise their religious beliefs and by necessity the limits of government’s ability to impose a substantial burden on that right.”
However, when HB279 was brought before the legislature, the ACLU didn’t support it. On March 11, the organization stated, “though laudable in its purpose, the bill as currently drafted, would undermine existing civil rights protections in the Commonwealth.”
Governor Steve Beshear’s agreed. Upon vetoing the bill, he stated:
I appreciate the good intentions of House Bill 279… However, I have significant concerns that this bill will cause serious unintentional consequences that could threaten public safety, health care, and individuals’ civil rights… The bill will undoubtedly lead to costly litigation.
HB279’s opponents fear that its language provides residents with the legal power to disregard state laws in the name of religion. Governor Beshears said, “Imprecise legal standards lead to unforeseen consequences.” He cites various areas where problems could arise including: civil rights, school curriculum standards, economic development efforts, public health initiatives and drug enforcement. For example, a science teacher might refuse to teach evolution or choose to teach creationism. Prayer could enter government meetings. The implications are endless.
Local Kentucky Priestess Nancie Clark of Spirit of the Earth Church said:
This law is deeply concerning to me on multiple levels and I am certain it is more than likely being pushed by those with their own religious agendas… I can foresee many fellow Kentuckian’s personal liberties being chipped away in subtle ways throughout pockets of this state. What saddens me is that many people here may not be aware of just how this law will affect them until of course something happens to them or someone they love.
Oberon Osiris, co-Public Information Officer of Covenant of the Goddess’ Midwest Regional Local Council, echoed those sentiments adding “For Pagans and other minority religions, this law could create strained relationships and conflicts in the overall community.”
Specifically, opponents, like Priestess Clark, are concerned about the Fairness laws protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered citizens. HB279 could render these city-based ordinances completely useless. Priestess Clarks adds, “What’s to stop a teacher or other mentor from preaching to a gay teen the error of their ways according to scripture? This law helps to legalize bullying.”
Despite all objections, the bill’s supporters including Family Foundation of Kentucky, the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, and the Kentucky Baptist Convention, maintain the bill’s only goal is to protect religious liberty. State Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington said:
It wasn’t so long ago we had prayer in the schools, but they made us take it out… There have been attempts to take God out of everything. They want to take God out of the pledge of allegiance, can you believe that? You don’t think your religious freedom is under attack? Then maybe you do believe in a boogeyman….
But are Rep. Lee and the other supporters really concerned with protecting religious liberty? Or is this just a back-door attempt to re-establish government-sanctioned religious practices?
Interestingly, Kentucky isn’t the only state with an RFRA. In fact, in 1993, the Federal Government enacted its own RFRA which was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court as being unconstitutional. Justice Stephens said:
In my opinion, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) is a “law respecting an establishment of religion” that violates the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Since 1993, 16 states have some form of RFRA and the Federal government has a new more restrictive version. Professor Christopher Lund of Wayne State University studied these laws in great detail and found them to be ineffective and unnecessary. His reports show that only three of the states (Florida, Illinois and Texas) have significant instances of litigation related to their RFRAs.
So why be concerned? Kentucky’s bill is touted as much broader in scope using “imprecise” language. In addition, Kentucky is proving to be a very conservative environment. Outside of this initiative that passed by a landslide. The state’s Department of Homeland Security requires all of its training materials to include the statement: “the safety and security of the commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.”
When it comes to RFRAs, there is always one lingering question: Why bother? Isn’t religious freedom already guaranteed by both the Kentucky and U.S. Constitutions? As best expressed by Democratic state Rep. Darryl Owen, “This is a piece of legislation looking for a reason.”
As always, Lady Liberty League will be watching the situation closely. Selena Fox stated:
Religious Freedom is an important foundation for the United States. We need to be vigilant, guard it, preserve it, and uphold it. However, as part of this work, we also need to closely examine political crusades and legislation that are put forth in the name of “Religious Freedom.” Just because something is proclaimed to be about “Religious Freedom” does not make it so. It is an affront to Freedom to pass and implement laws, whatever they are called, that can permit religious dogma and opinion to override Liberty and Justice for All.
In less than 90 days, HB279 will become a law. Whether civil liberties will be trampled in the name of religious freedom has yet to be seen. All we can do is wait and see.
(Note: The 16 states with RFRAs include Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Rhode Island, Alabama, Arizona, South Carolina, Texas, Idaho, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, Utah and Tennessee.)