FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The House on Friday passed a bill that would give stronger protections to people who claim the government has infringed upon their religious freedom.
The measure overwhelmingly passed by a vote of 82-7 — but not without more than 30 minutes of debate.
A handful of dissenting lawmakers claimed the bill could go too far. They said it could protect Roman Catholic parishes during criminal abuse investigations or allow Kentuckians to dodge provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act.
Proponents said the law is simply about protecting people's freedom of religion. They said the bill responds to the Kentucky Supreme Court's 2012 decision to uphold a former state law that required Amish buggies to display safety triangles. The Amish opposed the triangles on religious grounds. The proposal would give such claims stronger standing in the courts.
Robert Damron, D-Nicholasville, sponsored the measure. He said it's similar to the federal 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires the courts to apply a higher level of scrutiny to federal laws when someone claims religious infringement. Under that standard, the federal government must prove it has a compelling reason to enforce the law in question.
Damron said Kentucky's Supreme Court abandoned that high standard last year when it ruled against the Amish. He said his bill would restore that higher scrutiny, which existed in Kentucky before the court's decision.
Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, argued that the General Assembly already rectified the Amish's concerns with legislation. He said he's afraid the bill is too broad and could "stir up more lawsuits" that claim religious infringement.
"This broad legislation could be misinterpreted," he said. "It could be misapplied."
Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, said the bill could be used to protect the Catholic church against criminal investigations of priest abuse. And she said it could allow employers to refuse to provide insurance that covers birth control, a tenant of the federal health care law.
"I think there is way more in here than meets the eye," she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky issued a statement after the vote that said the bill could also undermine protections in some cities against employment discrimination for gays and other minorities.
Addia Wuchner, R-Burlington, said the fears are unwarranted. She said the bill is all of seven lines long, guaranteeing rights already established in the constitutions of the United States and Kentucky. She added that Kentucky laws that are challenged would remain in place if the government proves it has good reason to enforce them.
"Seven simple lines," she said. "This is about the rights to exercise our religious beliefs and what happens if they are infringed upon."
The legislation is House Bill 279.