LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In early 2013, Kentucky state Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, stepped up to sponsor a religious-freedom bill after the state Supreme Court issued a 2012 ruling that required Amish residents to put bright safety triangles on their buggies.

A veteran legislator in a Bible-belt state, Damron has sponsored more than 100 bills, and he expected this one to win easy passage.

But it didn’t turn out that way.

Last month, when the proposed legislation, backed by the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, finally came to the floor of the Democrat-controlled House, Damron and other supporters of the bill encountered an unexpected wave of opposition that led Kentucky’s Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear to veto the bill.

On March 26, the General Assembly approved a veto override, with overwhelming support from many legislators’ constituents.

But the battle underscores the growing clout of homosexual-rights activists, who have become crucial players in political coalitions in Kentucky and across the nation.

“I was surprised by the opposition to the legislation. I am a Democrat and have been a legislator for 21 years. I asked the staff, 'Where did the opposition come from?'” Damron told the Register.

Before the bill moved through the legislature, “LGBT” activists (the acronym stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered”) had met with him to “propose an amendment codifying the fairness ordinances in state law,” he said. Such “fairness ordinances” in some parts of the state bar discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation.

But Damron had rejected the proposed amendment. “I said, ‘This bill has nothing to do with gay rights.’”

Yet, as mainstream and homosexual-rights websites picked up the story, Damron began getting “hate mail from people as far away as New Jersey and New York.”


Catholic Motives Questioned

By the time the bill was brought to the floor of the Kentucky House, the American Civil Liberties Union had signaled its opposition. Legislators who attacked the bill raised questions about the Catholic bishops’ motives for supporting it and expressed concern about the alleged threat it posed to individual civil rights, though these critics did not focus on homosexual rights.  

During the House debate, one opponent noted that a Catholic bishop had spoken with Damron about the legislation and suggested that it would shield clerical sexual predators and the bishops who protected them.

A Catholic representative argued that Pope Paul VI had been wrong to bar contraception and hinted that the bill was designed to block implementation of the federal contraception mandate. However, Damron made it clear that a state law had no power to block the federal mandate.  

H.B. 279 states: “Government shall not substantially burden a person's freedom of religion. The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be substantially burdened unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest.”

The law specifies that a “‘burden’ shall include indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties or an exclusion from programs or access to facilities.”


Bishops’ Endorsements

In an interview with the Register, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, applauded the Kentucky bill as a “model” for the nation. Its language echoes the guiding principles of the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and is similar to laws in more than 12 other states that protect the free exercise of religion.

Amid the U.S. bishops’ national campaign to bar passage of the HHS contraception mandate, and their growing concern that legal same-sex “marriage” at the federal and state levels threatens the free exercise of church-affiliated institutions, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., also endorsed Damron’s initiative.

“The HHS mandate is just one of a number of assaults on religious liberty. We wanted to make sure that in the Commonwealth of Kentucky we provided the same protections as RFRA. This legislation does that,” Archbishop Kurtz, the vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register.

“It says: We recognize that government, at times, can limit religious freedom, but there has to be a clear and compelling reason, and they must choose the least-restrictive method to address the state’s interest,” he added.

Yet like many Church leaders across the nation, Louisville’s archbishop has confronted a painful truth: “Many people have no trouble thinking religion is a private matter.”

Archbishop Kurtz met with specific legislators to make a “persuasive case” for the bill, but opponents of the measure were gaining political traction.

The ACLU was the most prominent civil-rights group opposing the bill, joined by the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, and the Fairness Campaign, a state homosexual-rights group.

“If this bill is adopted, people can hide behind religious freedoms and discriminate in anyway they feel. They could say, based on my religion, I don’t think I should serve people based on interracial marriage,” John Johnson, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, told WFPL, a Louisville radio station.


A Shield, Not a Sword

That assessment was challenged by the Family Foundation of Kentucky, a Christian organization that joined forces with the Catholic Conference of Kentucky to marshal support for the legislation.

During a rally at the state Capitol, the Family Foundation’s Kent Ostrander described the bill as “a shield for people of faith, not a sword.”

Father Patrick Delahanty, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, told the Register that the unexpected opposition to the bill underscored the growing political strength of homosexual activists.

“The gay community … has allied themselves with every progressive group in Kentucky,” he said, adding that, after the bill was introduced, it was “the time for payback: ‘We helped you, and now you have to help us.’”

“And the groups did,” said Father Delahanty, who noted that several leaders of prominent civil-rights groups in the state identified themselves as “gay.”

Yet, even as civil-rights groups stepped up their attacks, many constituents registered strong support for the bill, and it ultimately passed both the House and the Senate.

On March 26, after the governor vetoed the legislation, the override passed in the Democrat-led House 79-15 and the Republican-controlled Senate 32-6.

Archbishop Kurtz applauded the bill’s passage and suggested it would help address a “dangerous” trend of reducing religious liberty to “freedom of worship,” while “freedom of religion … deals with how our worship of God overflows in grace into every corner of our lives.”

If freedom of religion is relegated to the margins of society, he warned in a statement released after the override, “the content of the common good will be stripped of the values that flow from religious conviction and will represent only secular values that at times are devoid of solid moral content.”


‘Scare Tactics’

Homosexual-rights activists who opposed the bill, like Chris Hartman, director of the Kentucky Fairness Campaign, framed the veto override as an “endorsement of discrimination, and legislators should be held accountable by those who support the rights of women, children, people of color.”

While “fairness” groups in the state that back strengthened protections for homosexuals have vowed to sue the state if the new law is used to victimize vulnerable people, religious-liberty advocates like Jason Hall, associate director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, underscore the need to learn lessons that can be applied in other states looking at similar bills.

“Be prepared for scare tactics related to civil rights. The primary argument used by the opposition, and the one that generated the most sympathy, was that protection of religious liberty will override civil-rights laws,” explained Hall in an April 11 column published in the Catholic Stand.

“This has never been the case, and those who have honestly explored the issue will admit that. Anti-discrimination laws covering housing, employment and other such basic necessities have always prevailed over religious-liberty interests.”

Hall stressed that it was also important to “know the opposition and their goals.”

For example, while the “American Civil Liberties Union used to support straightforward statutory protections for religious liberty ... their position has changed,” he said. “Homosexual activist groups have convinced many that their cause is the contemporary equivalent of the civil-rights movement and to oppose them is to be like segregationists in the 1960s.”

Hall added that Church leaders and other groups seeking to bolster religious-liberty protections should be prepared to provide compelling examples of threats to the free exercise of religion and to deal with “overt anti-religious bigotry.”

Yet Hall told the Register that he is still grappling with the “cultural shift” in his state.

“The governor has never vetoed anything in six years, except for a line-item veto,” he noted. “Groups that I thought would have no particular interest in gay rights couldn’t say No when the Fairness Campaign asked them to publicly oppose the bill. They are organized, well funded and influential.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.