Maine House deals another blow to Republican senator’s ‘religious freedom’ bill

In this January 2014 file photo, Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, speaks in favor of LD 1428, which he is sponsoring, in front of the Judiciary Committee at the State House in Augusta. The proposed bill, which would allow individuals and organizations to sue the government if they believe their religious beliefs have been infringed, failed on Thursday in the House of Representatives.
In this January 2014 file photo, Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, speaks in favor of LD 1428, which he is sponsoring, in front of the Judiciary Committee at the State House in Augusta. The proposed bill, which would allow individuals and organizations to sue the government if they believe their religious beliefs have been infringed, failed on Thursday in the House of Representatives. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 20, 2014, at 1:16 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 20, 2014, at 6:42 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would have added protections to religious freedom in Maine — most of which opponents said already exist — failed on Thursday in the House of Representatives, which means that the measure is dead.

The House voted 89-52 against the bill. Most Democrats and all four independents opposed the bill, while a majority of Republicans supported it. However, five Republicans voted against the bill, and three Democrats supported it.

The bill, LD 1428, failed to garner enough support for enactment on Tuesday in the Senate, where Democrats defeated it 19-16 on a mostly party-line vote. The bill was also controversial when it was debated in the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, where it garnered an “ought not to pass” recommendation.

Sponsored by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, the bill would have protected the right to the free exercise of religion in Maine by guaranteeing that no state law would infringe on a person’s free exercise of religion unless the law is necessary to further a “compelling state interest.” It would have given anyone who believes their religious rights are being infringed upon a legal defense in court or against an enforcement action.

Some argued that the bill goes too far and could create a path to unraveling the state’s same-sex marriage law and whittle away at the federal Affordable Care Act, specifically the provision that requires health insurance plans to pay for contraceptives.

Most Democrats who spoke on the floor Thursday argued against the bill, while Republicans urged its passage.

Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, said on the floor Thursday afternoon that as a gay man, he feels threatened by the bill.

“Religious freedom is important, but this bill just rubs salt in a wound,” said Chenette. “It makes me feel like a second-class citizen. … It is because I support both equal rights and religious rights that I oppose this bill.”

Reflecting the arguments of some lawmakers and gay-rights advocates who view Burns’ bill as an attempt to preempt the same-sex marriage law Maine voters passed in 2012, Rep. Matthew Moonen, D-Portland, said the debate over gay rights in Maine should be over.

“We have plenty of other things to fight about,” he said during floor debate. “We don’t need to keep fighting about this. Please vote to end the war on gay people in this state.”

Republicans, including Assistant House Minority Leader Alex Willette, R-Mapleton, passionately defended the bill.

“LD 1428 does not allow religious people to get away with anything they want,” said Willette. “It does not harm anyone with a religious trump card. Instead, LD 1428 creates a mere balancing test. … It does not say the government must roll over and play dead.”

Democrats who voted for the bill were Reps. Arthur Verow of Brewer, Stephen Stanley of Medway and Stanley Short of Pittsfield.

Republicans who opposed it were Reps. Richard Campbell of Orrington, Michael Beaulieu of Auburn, Aaron Libby of Waterboro, Sharri MacDonald of Old Orchard Beach and Joyce Maker of Calais.

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