So-called “religious freedom” measure denies Human Rights Act
AUGUSTA – This morning, in a 19-16 vote, the Senate voted against a controversial bill that would allow people to use their religious beliefs as a reason for breaking laws including non-discrimination laws such as the Maine Human Rights Act.
“I support and believe strongly in the First Amendment which provides for religious freedom, but I cannot support this bill because it is a step backwards,” said Democratic Senator Linda Valentino of Saco, the Senate Chair of the Judiciary Committee. “This bill would allow extremists to hide behind the words ‘religious freedom’ as a way to circumvent our anti-discrimination laws.”
Attorney General Janet Mills, the Maine Medical Association, the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination, the Maine Education Association, and the Maine Human Rights Commission, all oppose the bill.
“I believe wholeheartedly in religious freedom as established in our U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of Maine. What I do not support is the overreach in this bill,” said Democratic Senator Chris Johnson of Somerville. “My parents taught me long ago that my right to swing my arms ends when it meets up against another person’s right to not be assaulted. We all have to live this balance, free to personally hold and practice beliefs, but not free to impose our beliefs on others at the expense of their rights. Our laws exist to codify and implement balances between the many constitutionally expressed rights, as well as the interactions between people holding those rights.”
In a bipartisan vote of 9-4 ,the Judiciary Committee opposed the measure.
During the public hearing on the bill, Apollo Karara of Portland, a survivor of the genocide in Rwanda, spoke about his experiences coming to America to escape persecution and asked the committee to oppose the bill.
“As a Christian, I am glad that I have the freedom to practice my religion. But I know firsthand how dangerous it can be to decide that your personal beliefs entitle you to break laws that protect us all,” said Karara. “I came to America for safety and freedom–please do not take that away.”
The bill makes no exceptions for civil rights, health care, criminal behavior, or public safety. Additionally, it would allow anyone who claims that a law or regulation burdens their religious freedom, or thinks their religious freedom will be burdened, to sue for monetary damages.
Senator Valentino added, “One danger of this measure is the unintended consequences. Because your religion ‘says so’ does not mean you have carte blanche to break the law.”
The bill, LD 1428, “An Act to Protect Religious Freedom,” will now be sent to the House for further votes.
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