LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) -- Reaction to Gov. Steve Beshear's veto of the Kentucky legislature's religious freedom bill came swift and strong from state Baptist leaders.

"When did the cherished constitutional right of religious freedom become such a danger to our society?" asked Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, after Beshear's March 22 veto.

"An overwhelming majority of our legislators obviously don't see it that way, nor do Kentucky Baptists see it that way," Chitwood said.

The religious freedom bill, also known as HB 279, would strengthen legal protections for religious minorities by restoring "compelling interest" and "least restrictive means" as the legal tests by which the government must prove any action before restricting religious freedom. The bill, proponents argue, brings Kentucky back into line with federal court standards that the U.S. Congress affirmed in its 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Specifically addressing the Kentucky Supreme Court's "Amish case" decision last fall, Chitwood has said he realizes the state had real safety concerns in making the black buggies more visible. "Though the legislature settled the issue in a commendable way," he said, "the Supreme Court took the Commonwealth in a new direction with its implementation of the 'rational basis' standard for church/state interaction."

In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court similarly attempted to apply a "rational basis" test in reaching a decision. Congress, however, corrected the federal court's action by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Kentucky's General Assembly, proponents contend, seeks to do the same thing now.

Calling House Bill 279 a "corrective" measure, which passed the Kentucky House of Representatives 82-7 and the Senate by 29-6, Chitwood wrote in a letter to the governor March 12: "I'm sure you know the 'wall of separation' phrase was used by Thomas Jefferson in writing to the Danbury Baptists to describe how government must be extremely hesitant and principled when dealing with matters of religion.

"I view House Bill 279 very positively -- in the same way that liberals and conservatives and Democrats and Republicans viewed the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act that redirected the U.S. Supreme Court when it erred with its 1990 'rational basis' decision," Chitwood said.

Beshear, however, in vetoing the bill, said the "overly broad and vague terminology" in the law would make its enforcement difficult and lead to considerable litigation.

"As written, the measure calls into question the scope and efficacy of many laws regarding public health and safety as well as individual civil rights," he said, adding that citizens are entitled to clarity in the law.

After the bill's passage by the state legislature, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, civic human rights organizations and lesbian and gay advocacy groups were among those urging the governor to veto the bill.

"Having heard the fear-mongering of Gov. Beshear and the gay and lesbian special interest groups, I have to wonder if they have even read HB 279," Chitwood said.

"While I respect and pray for our governor, I could not disagree more with his veto of this important piece of legislation," he said, adding that he is optimistic the General Assembly will override the veto "for the sake of all people of faith in Kentucky." State legislators were due back in Frankfort March 25-26 for the final two days of the current legislative session, during which they may vote on any veto overrides.

KBC President Dan Summerlin and Mike Stacey, chairman of the KBC's Committee on Public Affairs, also reacted negatively to Beshear's veto.

Summerlin, senior pastor of Lone Oak First Baptist Church in Paducah, said he was "shocked and saddened" the governor vetoed a bill designed to help protect religious freedom.

"This bill was passed overwhelmingly by our legislators, and this bill was based on one passed by the federal Congress in 1993," Summerlin noted. "Many other states have passed a version of it because they understand the importance of upholding our constitutional rights when it comes to religious freedom.

"I have been amazed at the amount of misinformation from many groups on the content and the reasoning behind the bill," Summerlin said. He encouraged Kentucky Baptists to read it for themselves, look at its history, and let state legislators know what they think.

Stacey, pastor of Somerset's Buena Vista Baptist Church, said he too was saddened by the veto, and that the governor has "succumbed to the political persuasion of those who desire to push religious values out the window."

Encouraging his congregation and others to call their representatives to override the veto, Stacey said, "We will continue to pray for our governor just like the Scripture tells us to do. At the same time, we will not sit back and be silent on this or any other issue that threatens our religious heritage and values."

In a statement following the veto announcement, Martin Cothran of the Family Foundation of Kentucky called the opposition to religious freedom by the American Civil Liberties Union and gay rights groups "a dangerous development."

"This puts churches around the Commonwealth of Kentucky on notice that the First Amendment religious freedoms they thought their government respected may now be negotiable," Cothran said. "We just hope elected lawmakers in the legislature will act quickly to correct the governor's action."

Todd Deaton is editor of the Western Recorder (www.westernrecorder.org), newsjournal of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

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