Christian law firm continues battle against Kentucky gay-rights laws

Friday, December 3, 1999

A socially conservative advocacy group has continued its challenge to Kentucky laws that protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in housing and employment by filing a suit on behalf of landlords who say they should not be punished for refusing to rent to people who offend their Christian values.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit law firm founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, has already filed suits against a Louisville ordinance and a Jefferson County law that punish employers or landlords who discriminate against gays. The ACLJ is representing a Louisville physician in those two suits who claims he would violate his Christian principles by employing gays or lesbians.

Last week, the group, representing Rick and Connie Hile of Henderson, filed a third lawsuit. The Hiles and the ACLJ have asked a Henderson circuit court to declare a newly enacted gay-rights law to be unconstitutional and to prevent city officials from punishing the couple for refusing to rent to gays or lesbians. The Henderson law, called “Unlawful Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation in Employment, Housing and Public Accommodation,” carries a fine of up to $250.

According to the ACLJ's 17-page complaint, the Hiles, who own three rental properties in Henderson, are Southern Baptists who believe that “the Bible teaches that homosexuality and bisexuality are sinful, abominations, and offensive to God.” The Hiles say passages from Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Romans reveal God's disapproval of gays.

“In addition to their objection to facilitating sinful behavior, plaintiffs believe that individuals who engage in the aforementioned behavior demonstrate a serious lack of good moral character which renders them undesirable as tenants,” the ACLJ argues.

According to the lawsuit, the Hiles “have plans to deny rental of their property to individuals who are homosexual or bisexual” and that the “real and immediate threat of” enforcement of the Henderson anti-discrimination law violates the Hiles' free exercise of religion rights under the Kentucky and federal constitutions.

“This ordinance tramples on a landlord's constitutional right to the free exercise of religion,” said Frank Manion, a senior ACLJ attorney, in a prepared statement. “This is a clear example of government attempting to legislate its own view of morality at the expense of the fundamental rights of its citizens.”

Leslie Cooper, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, disagreed with Manion, saying that the free-exercise clause does not shield the Hiles from adhering to neutral city regulations that apply to all who rent property.

“What they are asking to do is to impose their religious views on others in their commercial lives,” Cooper said. “There is no question that the free-exercise clause protects their rights to practice their religion, but once they operate in the secular world, those protections don't allow them to foist their practices on others.”

Cooper said that religious-liberty challenges to anti-discrimination laws concern the ACLU because “if the plaintiffs in this case were to prevail on a religious-liberty claim, it would mean that all civil rights laws are vulnerable to religious-liberty challenges.”

Henderson City Attorney Joe Ternes did not return a call regarding the ACLJ lawsuit. According to The Gleaner, a Henderson daily, Ternes told the city commission in September that it had the legal authority to adopt the gay-rights law and that it could withstand a legal challenge.