Kentucky’s governor, Steve Beshear, vetoed the controversial and so-called “religious freedom” act, citing concerns over public safety and wellbeing in the state. However, because the bill passed both chambers of the state’s legislature, it will go back for an override vote next week. Given the sheer numbers of lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill, some believe that the veto won’t stand.
The bill itself, according to its supporters, is merely intended to restore the original provisions in Kentucky law that required the government to demonstrate “clear and convincing evidence” that it has a compelling interest in creating laws that might infringe on people’s religious beliefs. However, according to its opponents, it could easily erase years of progress in fighting against discrimination, particularly for the LGBT community and minorities.
Beshear’s primary worry centers on the broad and vague language of the bill, which he believes could have many unintended consequences as it’s currently written. At best, it would lead to long, complicated and expensive litigation problems for the state, should it be passed into law. The entire text of the bill reads:
“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.” [SOURCE]
According to the ACLU, people and organizations have been using religious freedom with increasing frequency as justification for discriminating against people that, in some way, do not fit with their religious ideals. Some types of discrimination that they’ve seen include graduate students who are in training to be social workers refusing to provide their services to gay people, schools firing women for becoming pregnant out of wedlock, pharmacies refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control, and wedding service providers shutting out gay and lesbian couples. Therefore, the statement beginning with, “The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief…” could be used to refuse any and all manner of services, even publicly funded services, to the LGBT community.
The ACLU is right, however, when they say, “Everyone is entitled to their own religious beliefs, but when you operate a business or run a publicly funded social service agency open to the public, those beliefs do not give you a right to discriminate.” They also apply this to medical services and employment.
The conflict arises when trying to differentiate between religious freedom, and forcing religion on other people. For some reason, fundamentalist Christians increasingly see themselves as persecuted, and their rights being stripped away, when it comes to granting civil rights to others. This is in no way true. It’s not persecution to grant rights to a group of people when they’re rights that you’ve always had.
However, Robert George, founder of the National Organization for Marriage, which has petitioned the Supreme Court to uphold DOMA, says of redefining marriage to include same-sex marriage:
“Such redefinition in practice would bring a new orthodoxy that circumscribes the ability of the Christian faithful to put their beliefs into practice. Examples of Christians unable to live integrated lives of work, faith, and service as a result of overzealous attempts to redefine marriage are many, but a few should suffice reveal the pernicious threat that the adoption of same-sex marriage poses to religious liberty.” [emphasis from source]
Basically, the argument can be boiled down to, “If you don’t live your life according to my beliefs, I don’t have to provide you with anything.” How is that not forcing a specific religion down people’s throats? Since when is religious freedom the freedom to force your beliefs on other people, including through discrimination?
And yet, this is what the Kentucky state legislature would seek to do with such a vague bill. The lawsuits alone that can come from such language are enormous, simply because it doesn’t define, well, anything at all. It leaves out specific definitions of “burden;” it doesn’t explain the difference between religious freedom and religious bullying; and because of that, it will likely lead not just to discrimination against the LGBT community, but also against minorities and possibly even women, all due to “sincerely held religious beliefs,” which also isn’t defined.
Beshear’s concerns about public safety, people’s ability to obtain proper health care, and people’s civil rights, should his veto be overturned, are not unfounded. The whole point of the bill would seem to be to encourage such discrimination, couching it in “religious freedom.”