While the Indiana Chamber of Commerce has taken a strong stance in support of legislation that would protect the LGBT community from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and Greater Louisville Inc. have not weighed in on legislation that would do the same in Kentucky, nor have they addressed the controversial state Senate bill that could gut the LGBT fairness laws passed in eight local communities, including Louisville.
Citing the harm that could be done to businesses, Indiana’s chamber strongly opposed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act last year that would allow discrimination against LGBT individuals by those who cited their religious beliefs in doing so. The legislation drew national media attention and condemnation from business interests who indicated they would think twice about locating their events and conventions in Indiana, including the NCAA. The Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association confirmed in January that the uproar caused the city to lose 12 conventions and up to $60 million in economic impact.
Indiana Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kevin Brinegar has gone further by publicly urging Gov. Mike Pence to support statewide LGBT protections this year, but so far chambers of commerce across the Ohio River remain reluctant to dive into similar debates that have sprung up in the current session of the Kentucky General Assembly.
Kentucky’s state Senate passed SB 180 last week, which would expand upon the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed in 2013 by explicitly exempting businesses from following local ordinances that prohibit discrimination against LGBT customers if doing so goes against their strongly held religious beliefs. The measure passed by a much narrower margin than most socially conservative legislation in the chamber, as all Senate Democrats and five Republicans voted against it.
Several Republicans explained their no vote by saying the legislature should wait until the completion of an appeal in a Lexington case, in which a judge ruled a T-shirt company was allowed to refuse service to an LGBT rights group who wanted shirts made for their pride event. Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, also argued that the “incredibly broad” bill would be “dangerous overreach” and undermine the eight local governments with LGBT fairness ordinances — including Louisville — and cited the opposition of similar legislation in Missouri and Indiana by local chambers of commerce.
Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, also stated on the Senate floor that the bill “goes way too far,” and that businesses and constituents in Louisville told her that it is not needed or welcome.
“I’m very concerned that this bill will have a detrimental impact on critical and ongoing economic development efforts in my hometown of Louisville,” said Adams.
Adams is also the lone Republican sponsor of the SB 176 — the Kentucky Workforce Competition Act — which is the companion legislation to a House bill that would expand LGBT protections in housing, employment and public accommodations statewide. Nearly identical legislation has been filed every session for more than a decade, but has only been given two hearings in a House committee the past two years and has yet to receive a vote. Almost 200 Kentucky businesses have signed on to a coalition supporting this legislation, including UPS, Humana, Fifth Third Bank and Brown-Forman.
Despite the support of those businesses — and the fallout from Indiana last summer — the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce gave a statement to IL indicating they remain neutral on both the statewide fairness law and SB 180.
“The Kentucky Chamber does not condone discrimination in any form,” read the statement. “We are not aware of any instances of discrimination stemming from Kentucky’s more narrow law passed in 2013, nor any negative economic consequences as a result. Our Chamber has not formally debated the merits of the law or the need for any clarification of Kentucky statutes in this regard.”
Greater Louisville Inc. sent IL a similar statement, saying they are “opposed to discrimination of any kind” but “do not have specific positions on each bill that is under consideration in the General Assembly because the specific legislative language has not been vetted by our Public Policy Council.”
Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, told IL that he suspects these chambers did not weigh in on SB 180 because it is assumed that the legislation will be rejected or not even considered by the House, giving them justification to sit on the fence and not anger people on either side of the issue. However, he remains disappointed that neither has come out to support the statewide LGBT fairness bill, saying they refuse to seize an opportunity that could bring significant economic advantages to Kentucky.
“There’s nothing bad that comes from simply updating the state’s civil rights act to include LGBT Kentuckians, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why some of our allied business organizations here in the commonwealth won’t follow some of the very businesses that they represent,” said Hartman.
Referring to the statements of both GLI and the Kentucky Chamber indicating they haven’t reviewed the legislation, Hartman added, “We’re talking about a bill that has been introduced for 17 years, almost unchanged. If your folks can’t get to a piece of legislation in the first decade, I would think that by the end of the second decade you should be able to.”
Hartman expanded on that same point when referring to GLI’s claim that they haven’t vetted the fairness ordinance’s specific language, which he called “disingenuous.” He noted that GLI actively opposed this bill until several years ago, when it switched to a neutral position after a meeting with the ACLU of Kentucky and the Fairness Campaign — which GLI confirmed.
While the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by a wide margin in 2013 with the support of most House Democrats — who also helped override then-Gov. Steve Beshear’s veto of the bill — Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo immediately threw cold water on SB 180’s chances of passing the House last week by calling it unconstitutional. Rep. Sannie Overly, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus and the Kentucky Democratic Party, went even further in a statement that surprised many observers, praising those in both parties who “stood up and said it is not right to legalize the hate and fear seen in SB 180.”
“I denounce Senate Bill 180, which unravels important protections adopted by local governments across Kentucky,” said Overly. “Discrimination, in all its forms, has no place in Kentucky. This is just the latest attempt by Senate Republican Leaders to roll back progress. It’s ironic that Republicans, often those who rattle sabers loudest about the tyranny of oppressive government, have proposed and passed a measure that uses government specifically to oppress.”
Hartman said Overly’s statement issued by the KDP “was stronger than we’ve ever seen the party come out on an issue like this before… We were incredibly proud that the Democrats stood up in the bold way that they did to send a message that this type of discriminatory legislation won’t be tolerated in their chamber.”