FRANKFORT, Ky. – Kentucky’s General Assembly voted overwhelmingly March 26 to override Gov. Steve Beshear’s veto of House Bill 279, also known as the religious freedom bill. The Democratic House passed the measure 79-15 and the Republican-controlled Senate voted 32-6.
“This important law will protect the rights of people of faith in Kentucky,” said Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention (KBC).
“Religious freedom was a good ideal when Kentucky became the 15th state of the Union on June 1, 1792. It still is,” Chitwood said. “I praise God for this victory.”
Chitwood and Curtis Woods, the KBC’s associate executive director, were among religious leaders and legislators who publicly denounced the governor’s March 22 veto at a Family Foundation of Kentucky-led rally prior to the Tuesday afternoon’s legislative session.
In an open letter to Beshear on March 22, Chitwood asked, “When did the cherished, constitutional right of religious freedom become such a danger to our society?”
“An overwhelming majority of our legislators obviously don’t see it that way, nor do Kentucky Baptists see it that way,” Chitwood wrote.
House Bill 279, proponents argue, brings Kentucky back into line with federal court standards that Congress affirmed in its 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law seeks to restore “compelling interest/least restrictive means” as legal tests that government must pass before restricting religious freedom.
The legislation was drafted in response to the Kentucky Supreme Court’s “Amish case” decision last fall in which the court implemented a “rational basis” standard for deciding a church/state matter.
In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court similarly attempted to apply a “rational basis” test in reaching a decision. Congress, however, corrected the federal court’s action by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Proponents contended that HB 279 is a similarly worded “corrective” measure.
HB 279 was sharply opposed, however, by gay advocacy and other groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. In the Lexington Herald-Leader, Chris Hartman, director of the Kentucky Fairness Campaign, was quoted as saying the override of Beshear’s veto made minorities more vulnerable to discrimination.
“Much to the contrary, this law protects against discrimination,” Chitwood told Kentucky Baptists’ Western Recorder newsjournal. “History has proven that religious freedom isn’t to be feared.”
Beshear, in vetoing the bill, had said it was vaguely worded and could result in costly and protracted lawsuits. The Democratic governor released a statement after March 26’s legislative action expressing disappointment with the override of the only bill he vetoed in the 2013 legislative session, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.
“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,” Beshear said.
State Baptist leaders – who, along with the Family Foundation of Kentucky, have maintained throughout the controversy that these concerns were unfounded – were pleased with Tuesday’s outcome, pointing out the magnitude of the vote margins in both chambers.
Chitwood expressed his deep appreciation to Kentucky Baptists who took time to call their legislators. “Once again, we see how our people’s involvement makes a difference,” he said.
“I am thrilled that our legislatures came together to stand for religious freedom in the commonwealth,” said KBC President Dan Summerlin of Paducah.
“This was a bipartisan effort and it demonstrated how people can work together to achieve vital legislation for the protection and the welfare of our society,” said Summerlin, pastor of Lone Oak First Baptist Church.
Adam Greenway, immediate past KBC president and associate dean and professor of evangelism and apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also was “deeply encouraged” by the strong bipartisan vote.
“Protecting the religious freedom of all Kentuckians is one of the first principles of our Baptist identity and a necessary commitment of our responsible citizenship,” Greenway said. “On this matter, people of faith from all across this great commonwealth contacted their legislators and cried out to God, and as a result the Lord has brought about a great victory.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Todd Deaton is editor of the Western Recorder, newsjournal of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.)