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Kentucky Senate Panel OKs Bill Overriding Local Fairness Laws

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Local ordinances that protect Kentuckians from sexual orientation-based discrimination by businesses would be rendered irrelevant by bill that passed a Senate committee Thursday.

The bill could have implications for an ongoing lawsuit against a Lexington apparel company that refused on religious grounds to print T-shirts requested by organizers of the city’s gay pride festival.

Stan Cave, an attorney for the conservative Family Foundation, said business owners shouldn’t be forced to grant services if doing so violates their religious beliefs.

“A person who’s exercising their right of conscience shouldn’t have to face bankruptcy because of the punitive measures that are being brought to bear through contempt and jail time and things of that nature,” Cave said.

The bill would protect businesses from being sued or having to pay punitive damages for violating local anti-discrimination, or fairness, ordinances based on sexual orientation. Those laws protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination by businesses and in accommodations.

In 2014, the Lexington Human Rights Commission ruled that Hands On Originals violated the city’s fairness ordinance for refusing to print T-shirts for the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization.

The ruling was overturned by the Fayette Circuit Court in 2015 and is currently on appeal in the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

Chris Hartman, executive director of the Louisville-based Fairness Campaign, said the bill is a step in the wrong direction.

“This definitely seeks to thwart the progress that we’re making and the achievements that we’ve already made here in the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Hartman said.

Kentucky has eight cities with fairness laws: Louisville, Lexington, Covington, Morehead, Frankfort, Danville, Midway and the small Appalachian town of Vicco.

A statewide fairness law has been proposed for the last several years but never given an official vote in committee.

Sen. Perry Clark, a Democrat from Louisville, voted against the bill, calling it unconstitutional.

“We are not to do that — promote one person’s rights of conscience over another,” Clark said.

Several members who support the measure refused to vote because, if enacted, the bill could affect the ongoing Hands On Originals case.

Sen. Albert Robinson, a Republican from London and the bill’s primary sponsor, encouraged members to pass the bill and let courts weigh in.

“If they want to sue, let them sue and let the court decide if it’s constitutional or not,” he said.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives for Kentucky Public Radio, a group of public radio stations including WKMS, WFPL in Louisville, WEKU in Richmond and WKYU in Bowling Green. A native of Lexington, Ryland most recently served as the Capitol Reporter for Kentucky Public Radio. He has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.
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