As in every state, residents of Kentucky already enjoy religious liberty under the First Amendment, but conservatives in the state legislature decided to craft a proposal that would empower Kentuckians with “sincerely held” religious beliefs to disregard state laws and regulations. In effect, if a law conflicted with the tenets of your faith as you interpret them, your conscience would trump your obligation to follow the law.
This wouldn’t mean folks could just run red lights and tell the police their “sincerely held” beliefs trump traffic lights — the legislation has a few safeguards, though critics argue they’re overly vague — but as my friend Rob Boston at Americans United for Separation of Church and State recently explained, the Kentucky proposal could carry widespread consequences.
What are some of the things that could happen if this bill becomes law? A pharmacist could refuse to provide Plan B drugs to a rape victim. The owner of an apartment building could refuse to rent to an unmarried couple. A woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock could be summarily fired from her job. The measure would also largely nullify protections for gays and lesbians that a handful of Kentucky communities have passed.
In short, the bill could end up elevating the religious beliefs of some people over the civil rights of all.
The bill nevertheless passed the legislature, largely with Republican support, but also with the backing of some conservative Democrats. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) then vetoed the measure, citing “serious unintentional consequences that could threaten public safety, health care and individuals’ civil rights,” and the need to avoid “costly litigation” the state would likely lose.
In response, the legislature overrode the veto this week, and it will become state law in 90 days. Religious right activists who lobbied aggressively for the measure have vowed to “move along with the rest of the country,” taking their proposal to other states.
Expect some interesting lawsuits to soon follow.
“Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, ‘Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?’ But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. ‘Why are you trying to trap me?’ he asked. ‘Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.’ They brought the coin, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ And they were amazed at him.”
— Mark 12:13-17
For Christians the above chapter details how God-as-flesh would have us relate to Earthly power. Christ did not recommend that anyone should transgress against the law—be it of Moses or Caesar. So when the Kentucky Legislature urges one to lean upon his own understanding to determine which laws he should follow and which laws he should break, Christians should ignore the Kentucky Legislature and instead imitate their Christ.