Kentucky governor vetoes bill exempting religious groups from civil rights laws

Friday, March 10, 2000

Gov. Paul E. Pa...
Gov. Paul E. Patton

An effort by Kentucky’s Legislature to exempt churches and other religious groups from abiding by certain civil rights laws has been thwarted by the governor.

In early February, the Kentucky House passed, 82-17, an act that would have allowed all nonprofit religious groups to deny the use of their property to any group that failed adhere to their religious dogmas. On Feb. 23, the state Senate approved the act, House Bill 70, by a vote of 17-12.

On March 8, Democratic Gov. Paul E. Patton vetoed the bill, saying all private entities that are open to the public must obey state civil rights laws.

“These laws do not require a religious organization to open its facilities to the general public, but they do require that if a religious organization opens its facilities and activities to the general public, they must obey the same laws that non-religious entities are required to obey,” Patton wrote in his veto message. “House Bill 70 compromises this important purpose and violates both the spirit and the meaning of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act by permitting discrimination on the basis of religion, the free exercise and non-establishment of which were among fundamental principles in the founding of our state and country.”

Without Patton’s veto, the bill would have become law at the end of the day.

State Rep. Tom Kerr, a Democrat, introduced the bill after a Baptist preacher complained to him about having to rent church space to a group of secular humanists. The Rev. Wayne Lipscomb, pastor of a Baptist church in northern Kentucky, testified before a state House committee that no Christian group should be forced by government to let people who are not theistic to use or rent its facilities.

A call to Kerr about the governor’s veto was not returned. He told the Lexington Herald-Leader that he would urge House members to override it. The Senate, however, must also approve an override by 20 votes.

Opposing the veto was the American Center for Law and Justice, a law firm founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, which has challenged Kentucky gay civil rights laws on religious-liberty grounds. The group is representing an obstetrician who does not want to hire gays or lesbians because he believes doing so would offend God. Louisville and Jefferson County both have laws barring employers from discriminating against workers or potential hires based on their sexual orientation. Jefferson County’s law additionally protects gays and lesbians against discrimination when seeking housing.

Frank Manion, the senior ACLJ attorney representing the physician, said he was disappointed by Patton’s veto.

“We, of course, are hoping for an override of his action,” Manion said. “The governor’s comments about the bill represent the all too frequent misunderstanding of what freedom of religion is all about; these civil rights laws, which were the subject of the bill, do tend to trample upon the beliefs of people of all kinds of religious faith. The governor’s position seems to ignore the paramount place religious freedom is given in our Constitution. The Founding Fathers thought religious freedom was the paramount freedom.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, however, lauded Patton’s action as a “major victory for all of us who fight for civil rights and civil liberties.”

Jeff Vessels, executive director of the ACLU of Kentucky, said the bill would have allowed religious groups to discriminate for any number of reasons in an effort to “roll back basic civil rights of all Kentuckians.”