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Governor vetoes religious freedoms bill citing unintended consequences

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Governor Steve Beshear vetoed House Bill 279 today, noting its well-placed intentions but possible significant unintended consequences.

“Religious freedom is a cornerstone of this great nation, and a right enshrined in both the United States Constitution and the Kentucky Constitution,” said Gov. Beshear. “I value and cherish our rights to religious freedom and I appreciate the good intentions of House Bill 279 and the members of the General Assembly who supported this bill to protect our constitutional rights to practice our religion. However, I have significant concerns that this bill will cause serious unintentional consequences that could threaten public safety, health care, and individuals’ civil rights. As written, the bill will undoubtedly lead to costly litigation. I have heard from many organizations and government entities that share those same concerns. Therefore, after giving this measure thoughtful analysis and consideration, today I vetoed the bill.”

HB279, sent to the Governor on March 11, would allow an individual to disregard any state or local law that places a substantial burden on his or her sincerely held religious belief. As written, the government would have to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that the state has a compelling interest in requiring the person to follow the established law, and that there is no less restrictive means to accomplish the government’s objective.

Federal law and HB279 are fundamentally different

Supporters have referenced the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and similar state RFRA laws as the template for this legislation. However, Gov. Beshear noted that House Bill 279 is fundamentally different than those laws – mostly because the vague language of HB279 lends itself to overly broad applications.

As written, HB279 imposes a heightened standard of “clear and convincing proof” to evaluate compliance with a law that contains an unclear definition of “burden,” which invites costly and possibly lengthy legal challenges. The bill offers no exceptions for certain state agencies or civil rights laws. There are no exceptions for the protection and safety of the general public, such as public health standards.

“Imprecise legal standards lead to unforeseen consequences,” said Gov. Beshear. “Citizens and governmental entities are entitled to a clear understanding of the boundaries of permissible conduct. This bill, as written, while well intended, is undermined by precarious legal wording,” said Gov. Beshear.

Groups as varied as the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, Inc. to the National Association of Social Workers-Kentucky Chapter to the Center for Accessible Living have called on the Governor to veto the bill, citing concerns including:

•Weakening of local civil rights laws;
•Impact on implementation of the new Common Core Standards in our schools;
•Negative impact to economic development efforts;
•Adverse impact on enforcement of drug laws;
•Additional financial burdens on local governments; and
•Possible withholding of needed medical care or use of religion as a justification for abuse.

State government agencies also expressed concerns to the Governor that this bill could:

•Increase litigation costs;
•Decrease federal funding; and
•Threaten public health, including refusal to provide needed medication or services.

Despite his veto, Gov. Beshear expressed a willingness to work with supporters to develop a bill that might mitigate these unintended consequences. “I urge supporters and opponents of this legislation to come together before next session and find compromise legislation that protects religious freedom, while avoiding the possible unintended consequences of House Bill 279, and I pledge to work with them to find that compromise,” he said.


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