Kentucky’s four bishops urged Governor Steve Beshear Tuesday, March 12, to sign into law House Bill 279, a measure that aims to strengthen religious freedom in the Commonwealth.
In a letter delivered to the governor’s office by the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, the bishops said the right to the free exercise of religion has suffered “steady erosion” during the last quarter of a century.
They pointed specifically to a U.S. Supreme Court case from 1990 — Employment Division vs. Smith — that they said led to the nearly-unanimous passage of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.
According to their letter, the primary Senate sponsor of the measure, Sen. Ted Kennedy, said at the time that the law sought to restore “the long-established standard of review that had worked well for many years.”
House Bill 279, the bishops argued, will restore that long-established standard of “strict scrutiny” to Kentucky, the highest standard used by the courts to weigh a constitutional right against the government’s interest.
The letter was signed by Archbishop of Louisville Joseph E. Kurtz, Bishop of Owensboro William F. Medley, Bishop of Lexington Ronald W. Gainer and Bishop of Covington Roger J. Foys.
House Bill 279 specifically states that the government may not “burden” someone’s religious freedom — and it is intended to protect a person’s right to act or not act on the grounds of religious freedom — unless the government proves “by clear and convincing evidence” a compelling interest to establish such a burden.
Father Patrick Delahanty, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, said during an interview early this week that two tests are essential to religious liberty cases.
“If the government infringes on someone’s right to practice (their religion), it has to be compelling,” he said. Secondly, the government should use “the least restrictive means” when it places a burden on someone’s religious practice.
He cited a case heard last year by the Kentucky Supreme Court that involved the Amish and the safety of horse-drawn buggies on dark roads. Members of an Amish sect in Western Kentucky refused to affix a required bright orange reflective safety triangle to their buggies.
“The government had a compelling interest to protect other people on the highway,” Father Delahanty said. But the government’s solution, he said, was to require brightly colored triangles, “which were offensive to the Amish.”
“They asked if they could use something different, like reflective tape. The government said no,” he said.
Such rights, Father Delahanty said, would be protected under House Bill 279.
Opponents of the legislation, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), say the measure may threaten other civil rights protections, such as local ordinances that protect homosexuals from discrimination.
Father Delahanty said those concerns are unfounded and that no such cases have resulted from similar laws in other states. He also noted that the ACLU supported the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.
“Long experience with the strict scrutiny standard has shown that the courts understand the compelling public interest in eliminating unjust discrimination,” a press release from the CCK said. “The breakdown in the coalition of support for this very simple legislation over the past 20 years illustrates the erosion of respect for religious liberty as a serious, fundamental right proper to all.”