Kentucky lawmakers override veto of bill exempting churches from civil rights law

Tuesday, April 18, 2000

The Kentucky General Assembly has overwhelmingly trumped the governor’s veto of a bill that exempts the state’s churches from certain civil rights laws.

Last January, state Rep. Tom Kerr, a Democrat, urged passage of House Bill 70, which allows nonprofit religious groups to deny the use of their property to any group not adhering to their beliefs. Kerr was prompted to sponsor the act after a preacher complained about having to rent his church to secular humanists. Both Kentucky chambers approved the bill.

But on March 8, Democratic Gov. Paul E. Patton vetoed the bill, asserting it would give preference to religious groups by allowing them to ignore the state’s civil rights laws.

Patton said in his veto message that the bill “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.”

On April 14, the House and Senate voted to override Patton’s veto, thereby enacting the bill into law.

Republican state Rep. Bob Heleringer, arguing from the House floor for an override, declared no church should be forced to allow its facilities to be used by nonbelievers.

Kentucky law bars places of public accommodation, such as resorts, amusement parks and stores, from discriminating against individuals because of gender, race, disability, origin or religion. House Bill 70 states that the definition of a place of public accommodation “does not include a religious organization and its activities and facilities” for situations where use of such facilities “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”

Mark Pfeiffer, a Patton spokesman, said the governor would stand by his veto, but noted the Assembly’s prerogative in overriding his action.

An opponent of the bill, Democratic state Rep. Kathy Stein, claimed it would prompt religious discrimination and spur litigation. “This sends a message to the Commonwealth of Kentucky that it is OK once again to go back to the ’50s and to the ’60s when it was OK to discriminate against other people because they were different than you,” Stein told the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Jeff Vessels, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, echoed Stein’s concerns, saying that “there is a lot of potential for a legal challenge because the bill is broadly worded and it pertains to a wide array of public commercial activity that might be sponsored by religious organizations.”

“The lawmakers would have you think that the bill deals with only a narrow nature of renting space to the public, but the language is broad enough to allow any religious group that is running a public business to discriminate against people based on religious beliefs,” Vessels said.