Statewide ‘Fairness’ Bill Still Faces Political Hurdles In Kentucky

Jul 4, 2016

Credit Jacob Ryan

Liberal state lawmakers have for 16 years pushed for a bill that would amend Kentucky’s civil rights code to protect people from discrimination in the workplace, housing and other areas based on their sexual orientation.

Dubbed the fairness bill, the measure has gotten considerable attention from the press and advocates each year it’s been proposed, but it hasn’t ever gotten traction in the legislature.

But in the wake of the shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando last month, and as several states —including Kentucky — sue the federal government over bathroom guidelines for transgender students in public schools, it doesn’t look like support for the measure is growing in the commonwealth.

The fairness bill has never received an official vote in committee — one of the first hurdles a bill has to overcome on the way to becoming a law — even in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, co-sponsored the legislation in 2014, but this year he has said he hasn’t given it much consideration.

Kent Ostrander, who opposes the bill and is executive director of the Kentucky Family Foundation, said Stumbo won’t allow a vote on the fairness bill because “it would split his caucus.”

“The liberals from Louisville and Lexington would be for it, the conservative Democrats would be in a little state of panic,” Ostrander said. “Some would probably vote for it, some would vote against it. And he does not allow his party to be split.”

Despite being on the Democratic Party’s national platform, support for LGBTQ issues can be hard to come by in the party’s Frankfort ranks.

Stumbo — who didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story — was one of 37 Democrats in the state legislature who signed a brief in support of state bans on same-sex marriage in advance of the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized it.

Meanwhile, Stumbo has refused to take up a so-called religious freedom bill that would thwart local fairness ordinances, such as the one in Louisville. That bill passed the state Senate this legislative session and languished in the House without consideration.

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

Rep. Jim Wayne, a Louisville Democrat, said advocates need to renew their push for a fairness bill in the wake of the Orlando shootings.

“It’s high time for us as followers of the gospel to say ‘enough is enough,’ let’s be as inclusive as possible and welcome everybody and welcome diversity,” Wayne said.

Wayne said Pope Francis’ recent comment that Christians owe apologies to LGBTQ people should rally support for the fairness bill.

Chris Hartman, executive director of Kentucky’s Fairness Campaign, said the measure is “probably not” going to pass during next year’s legislative session. But, he said, it would make economic sense for Republican Gov. Matt Bevin to sign such a bill into law in Kentucky, which would make it the first southern state to do so.

“Is it out of the question that Gov. Bevin may sign a piece of legislation like this? As a shrewd businessman, I definitely think the economic argument can be persuasive,” Hartman said.

Bevin’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on the issue.

Supporters of the measure argue that LGBTQ discrimination protections would make the state more attractive for businesses interested in relocating to Kentucky. Brown-Forman, Humana, Fifth Third Bank, Chrysalis Ventures and more than 150 other companies joined the push for a statewide fairness law in advance of this year’s legislative session.

Ralph de Chabert, vice president and chief diversity officer for Brown-Forman, said backlash over North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law shows that the business community is on board with LGBTQ rights. The North Carolina law requires transgender students in public schools to use the bathroom that corresponds with the sex on their birth certificates.

“Businesses are saying that’s not going to work well for us, and if you’re going to adopt those positions, we’ll take our business elsewhere,” de Chabert said.

Major businesses and organizations protested the measure by canceling expansions and relocations planned in the state, moving conventions elsewhere and scratching several high-profile concerts.

In response, the federal government threatened to pull funding for state programs and directed public schools across the country to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches the gender with which they identify.

Bevin has joined a multi-state lawsuit against the federal government over that directive.

When asked why the statewide fairness bill hasn’t received a vote in committee, de Chabert chalked it up to “the reality of the makeup of the state at the moment.”

“I think the committees and others respond to their constituents, and right now there’s not enough of a push that would require them to pay more attention to it,” he said.

According to a Bluegrass Poll from 2015, 57 percent of Kentuckians opposed legalizing same-sex marriage.