Panel approves religious freedom amendment

FRANKFORT, KY. — Kentucky courts would be required to allow people to opt out of obeying some laws that run counter to their religious beliefs if a constitutional amendment that passed a Senate committee Wednesday becomes law.

Senate Bill 158 would require the government to exempt people from laws that contradict their religious beliefs unless there is an overriding reason why those laws should be enforced.

Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, said he sponsored the legislation for the Family Foundation of Kentucky. The Catholic Conference of Kentucky also backed the measure.

Martin Cothran, a policy analyst for the Family Foundation, said it was concerned that Kentucky has never acted to restate the religious rights of individuals afater a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that it believes chipped away at religious rights.

That ruling came in a case in which two members of the Native American Church were denied unemployment benefits after they were fired from their because they tested positive for the hallucinogenic drug peyote, which is used in some native American religious ceremonies.

The court ruled that the state could deny benefits even though their “misconduct” occurred because of their religious beliefs.

That decision essentially overturned previous rulings that found that the government couldn’t enforce laws against people acting on religious grounds unless it showed a compelling interest in enforcing the law.

“Before 1990, the government had to show a compelling state interest,” Higdon said during a meeting of the Senate State & Local Government Committee.

Higdon’s bill would restore the “compelling government interest” and it would require the state to use the “least restrictive” means to further that interest when enforcing laws against those who claim a religious exemption.

Higdon said SB 158, which passed 6-0, would have avoided two situations in Western Kentucky in which several Amish men were charged and sent to jail because they wouldn’t put red and orange safety triangles on their buggies for religious reasons. Instead, Higdon said, the amendment would have allowed them use reflective tape that wouldn’t violate their religious beliefs.

Cothran said Alabama has adopted a similar amendment to its constitution and several other states have approved statutory changes that essentially do the same thing.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where it needs approval from three-fifths of its members to move on to the House.

Reporter Joseph Gerth can be reached at (502) 582-4702.

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