‘Can’t take away our humanity:’ Fairness Rally follows religious freedom bill vote

Published 12:46 pm Thursday, February 22, 2024

FRANKFORT — Less than an hour after a legislative committee voted 14-6 to expand the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, dozens of Kentuckians gathered for the annual Fairness Rally at the Capitol.

Rally attendees protested 13 bills they’ve labeled as anti-LGBTQ, including Burlington Republican Rep. Steve Rawlings’ religious freedom bill.

Chris Hartman, Fairness Campaign executive director, said that Rawlings’ bill risks the viability of Fairness Ordinances in 24 communities, during the 25th anniversary of Kentucky’s first Fairness Ordinance in Louisville.

Fairness Ordinances like Louisville’s ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in various sectors of society, like housing, employment and public accommodations.

House Bill 47: Protecting religious liberty or targeting fairness?

Kentucky’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was established in 2013. It states that the government cannot “substantially burden” a person’s freedom of religion unless it proves that it has a “compelling governmental interest” in doing so.

A burden on someone’s freedom of religion may include exclusion from programs or facilities, withholding benefits or assessing penalties. If the state does have sufficient interest, it must use the “least restrictive means” to further that interest.

HB47 expands upon the current RFRA. It defines “substantially burden” as “any action that directly or indirectly constrains, inhibits, curtails or denies the exercise of religion by any person or compels any action contrary to a person’s exercise of religion.”

It clarifies that the RFRA applies to all state and local laws and regulations, and that anyone can sue against any person who executes these laws and regulations on behalf of a governmental body.

Those whose freedom of religion is violated according to the RFRA can sue for damages, legal fees, declaratory and injunctive relief.

Rawlings said that HB47 doesn’t create new rights.

“Instead, it codifies the judicial standard that determines how seriously we take our commitment to religious freedom in this Commonwealth,” he said.

“Religious people and houses of worship are facing more and more government intrusion and violations of their right to freely live and worship. We need to ensure that our Commonwealth has the strongest Religious Freedom Act before these trends worsen.”

Rawlings was joined by Greg Chafuen, an attorney for national interest group Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF recently represented a Louisville woman, Chelsey Nelson, in a lawsuit against the city of Louisville over its Fairness Ordinance.

Nelson is a wedding photographer who is opposed to same-sex marriage and argued that Louisville’s Fairness Ordinance would have required her to serve same-sex couples.

Last year, a federal district court ruled in her favor, stating that Louisville can’t use the Fairness Ordinance to compel her to do so, but kept the ordinance otherwise intact.

Hartman argued that Kentucky’s freedom of religion is “already strongly protected” by current federal and state law, and that ADF has an ulterior motive in pushing this bill.

“I posit that the reality is that House Bill 47 is nothing but a jackpot justice law for the Alliance Defending Freedom, who actually came here today to not say exactly that, but to imply it,” Hartman said.

“The Alliance Defending Freedom is a national interest group that seeks to fleece Kentucky out of millions of tax dollars, while weakening civil rights laws by traipsing about our state to sue every city and county that has a fairness ordinance.”

Several legislators and bill opponents criticized HB47 as being “overbroad” and opening the floodgates to “frivolous lawsuits.”

Rev. Kent Gilbert, chair of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said that the council was never consulted about this bill.

“I can also report to you that never once in the council that meets regularly to discuss matters precisely related to religious freedom have we seen an urgent need for this,” Gilbert said.

He added that HB47 “confuses” with overly broad definitions and “makes possible the kind of discrimination that persons have integrity of every faith tradition abhor.”

Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Middletown, expressed that there must be a way to balance religious freedom protections while maintaining fairness ordinances. He asked Rawlings to promise to work to find that balance, and Rawlings agreed.

Democrats Keturah Herron, Nima Kulkarni, Pamela Stevenson and Lindsey Burke and Republicans Stephanie Dietz and Kim Banta voted against the bill.

‘I’ll get the veto pen ready again’

Later, the Capitol rotunda was filled with rainbow signs and clothing as people gathered for the annual Fairness Rally.

Gov. Andy Beshear was the first sitting Kentucky governor to attend a rally back in 2020, and has continued the streak ever since.

He introduced himself as “governor who vetoed Senate Bill 150.” SB150 was last year’s omnibus anti-transgender, or parental rights, bill that dealt with issues like bathroom bans, puberty blockers for transgender minors and curriculum on human sexuality and gender expression.

During last year’s governor campaign, Beshear was criticized by his opponents for his decision to veto that legislation, with some commercials falsely claiming that he supported gender transition surgeries for minors—he doesn’t.

“After all the commercials, after all the attacks, after everything they threw at me, I would do it again today,” Beshear said. “…I believe every Kentuckian is a child of God worthy of respect and love.”

He added that he planned to fight this year’s anti-LGBTQ legislation. “I’ll get the veto pen ready again,” Beshear said.

Several other state lawmakers made appearances, including Kentucky’s first openly LGTBQ lawmaker Rep. Keturah Herron and Sen. Karen Berg, whose transgender son died of suicide several years ago.

Emma Curtis, a candidate for Lexington’s urban county council and transgender woman, also spoke. She said that state legislators seemed to have forgotten Kentucky’s motto—united we stand, divided we fall.

“I won’t lie to you, things might get worse before they get better,” Curtis told the crowd, including many young LGBTQ people.

“But please remember this: while there will be more battles waged against us in our future, we have already won the so-called culture war. You cannot legislate a group of people out of existence. You can try to take away our rights, you can bully us, you can try to take away our healthcare, but you cannot take away our humanity.”