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Maine Senate Rejects 'Religious Freedom' Bill
02/18/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Majority Democrats used their superior numbers in the Maine Senate today to reject statutory checks on the government's ability to restrict a person's religious practices. Modeled after federal legislation that has been adopted by 18 states, the bill is supported by members of several different faiths. Supporters claim the law is needed to ensure state government can legally justify positions that could be perceived as an infringement on religious rights. Opponents say the bill could lead to serious unintended consequences. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Maine Senate Rejects 'Religious Freedom' Bill
Originally Aired: 2/18/2014 5:30 PM

Speakers on both sides of the aisle staunchly defended their positions on the bill, titled "An Act to Protect Religious Freedom," and claimed it had nothing to do with being a Republican or a Democrat. Republican Sen. Gary Plummer of Windham said that was the last place he wanted to go.

"I am told by some the idea of religious freedom has become a political issue," Plummer said. "I pray that this vote does not follow party lines."

But that's pretty much just what it did - despite the best efforts of Senate Republicans, whose floor debates frequently invoked the names of famous Democrats. David Burns is the bill's sponsor.

"The government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone's free exercise of religion," Burns said. "I didn't say that - President Clinton said that."

And another example offered by Assistant Senate Republican Leader Roger Katz. "One of the other important co-sponsors was Sen. Kennedy, who talked about the brave pioneers who founded America and came here in part to escape religious tyranny," Katz said.

Republicans even invoked President Barack Obama's stated support for religious freedom. But in the end, LD 1428 was rejected 19-16, with all but one of the Senate Democrats on one side of the bill and the Republicans on the other.

Sen. David Burns, a Whiting Republican, says the bill is needed to provide a legal mechanism that would force state government to demonstrate a compelling interest standard when it chooses to take action that could be perceived as a restriction on an individual's religious rights.

If the state could not meet the standard, aggrieved parties could opt out of situations that might involve a person's right to wear certain clothing in the workplace, or not consent to state-ordered medical autopsies. Burns also said it could apply to religious groups -- such as some members of the Amish community - that do not wear blaze orange when hunting because it is perceived as a loud color.

"LD 1428 simply requires that the government has a strong justification for infringing on the free exercise of religion, which is exactly the kind of restriction government should have when they are dealing with fundamental rights, which this is," Burns said. "There are some who argue, however, that Maine citizens don't need LD 1428 to protect their religious freedoms as the First Amendment already protects religious freedom. The simple answer to that is, not like it used to ladies and gentlemen."

"We don't need this in Maine - we have strong protections, we have strong anti-discrimination laws," said Sen. Linda Valentino, a York Democrat.

Valentino is among those opponents who insist that the First Amendment already protects the religious rights of all Mainers. She worries that the bill could be used in ways to justify actions that are otherwise illegal in Maine.

During floor debate, the bill's critics speculated that as written, LD 1428 could be used to deny housing to same sex-marriage couples because a landlord's religion doesn't recognize gay marriage. Others, they said, might be inclined not to extend contraception prescriptions to workers because their religion promotes pro-life policies.

For Democratic senators, such as Chris Johnson of Somerville, the bill potentially posed too many unintended consequences. "What I do not support is the overreach in LD 1428 that would allow a person or an organization to violate the civil and individual rights of others based on the former's religious beliefs," Johnson said.

The bill faces additional votes in the Maine House.


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