BURLINGTON, Ky. (BP)–Leaders of Bullittsburg Baptist Assembly in Boone County faced a moral dilemma: rent the camp facilities to a group of atheists or risk violating Kentucky’s civil rights laws.
That was the challenge for Wayne Lipscomb, pastor of Union Baptist Church, who was serving as chairman of the camp’s board. In 1996, camp leaders leased the campground to an organization called Free Inquiry before discovering it was a self-proclaimed group of secular humanists who reject any belief in God. The group also had already reserved the camp for a week the following summer.
Trying to decide whether to honor the 1997 agreement, Lipscomb said the board’s attorney indicated state civil rights laws prohibit discrimination in the rental of public accommodations.
“The law says any time an organization opens up a facility to any outside group, they cannot refuse anyone,” Lipscomb said. “That was a shock to us. We assumed as a religious organization, the law would be behind us.”
Choosing not to ignore the law, camp leaders allowed the Free Inquiry group to use the camp facilities in 1997, but immediately began to seek long-term solutions to the touchy predicament.
Board members began by revising the camp’s policies for renting to outside groups. As the same time, Lipscomb said, they made a commitment to the Northern Kentucky Baptist Association which owns the camp to try to amend the law.
In 1998, proposed changes never made it through the legislative committee process, but this year, with the help of State Rep. Tom Kerr, House Bill 70 has passed the Kentucky House of Representatives on Feb. 2 and has been forwarded to the Senate.
The bill passed the House by a vote of 82-17. It seeks to “exclude a religious organization from the definition of ‘public accommodation, resort or amusement’ under the civil rights laws if the rental or sale of the public accommodation would not be consistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”
Balancing concern for religious liberty and civil rights, the bill also would “prevent an organization from being designated a religious organization under the act if the organization advances hatred based on race, color or national origin.” Legitimate religious organizations also would be prohibited from discriminating on the basis of disability, race, color or national origin.
The bill “is very limited and focused very narrowly,” Kerr explained. “It says a church or religious organization that makes its facilities available to the public can withhold that facility if a group’s views are offensive to the religious beliefs of the church.”
He said the bill also clearly addresses the concern of a group “claiming its basic religious beliefs involve racist beliefs or superiority of a race” by denying religious status to such groups.
Overall, Kerr said, the bill “restores religious freedom to our Kentucky churches to be able to exercise discretion in how their property is used.”
Citing the need for the legislation, Kerr added, “To turn a facility dedicated to the Lord’s service over to a group who rejects the God we worship ultimately is an inroad by the state into the free exercise of religion.”
Lipscomb said Sen. President Pro Tem Dick Roeding plans to lead efforts to pass the measure in the Kentucky Senate.
Kerr said the bill should be assigned to a Senate committee during the week of Feb. 7 and sent to the Senate floor as early as the following week. He voiced confidence that the bill “will be overwhelmingly passed in the Senate.”
Assessing the impact of the legislation, Lipscomb said, “This has taken on a far greater importance than what started four years ago. We’ve been going at it from a First Amendment perspective. It will provide religious organizations the ability to have a choice and stand up for their religious convictions.
“The significance is not just for Southern Baptists in Kentucky,” he added. “It goes across denominational and faith lines.
“It would have been really easy to take a short-term approach and not abide by the law, but that would have done more to hurt us than help us,” Lipscomb said. “We took the responsibility to work within the system and try to change things.”