Robert Ehlert: Religion, gay rights and a controversial bill in the Idaho Legislature

February 5, 2014 

Robert Ehlert

Roger Ehlert

The legislation proposed by Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, to protect his idea of religious freedom has been one of the lightning rods of the Legislature.

Lightning in a bottle, so far.

Though Luker’s Free Exercise of Religion Act, which is detailed in House Bills 426 and 427, might get a hearing during this election year, it doesn’t seem like the kind of talking point Idaho Republicans want to launch their campaigns with.

The bills’ goal to protect the devout is criticized by detractors as a license to discriminate, not a law to spare the licenses of professionals who would cite it when refusing service. There are legitimate concerns about the litigation that could arise. Plus, the broad definition of “religion” and “sincerely held religious beliefs” reminds me of the adage to be careful what you wish for.

For my money, I’d rather see the Legislature discuss Medicaid expansion before taking on Luker’s proposals — which actually have the potential for irony. Though the Add The Words protesters were turned away Monday at the entrance to the Senate, there is the slightest chance the door to the House could crack open for an Add The Words discussion should Luker’s legislation get a hearing.

Who is Lynn Luker? He is a Boise workers’ compensation attorney whose background juxtaposes his undergraduate studies at Cal-Berkeley, a Mormon mission and finally law school at the University of Idaho. He has fearlessly armed himself with First Amendment fervor: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ... ”

Why did he write the bills?

“The growing level of government mandates in our lives: Obamacare, contraceptive abortion coverage that you may or may not want to support; mandates on the state and local level; counselors being told that they can’t include faith in their counseling even if the person wants it; same-sex marriage and issues, that’s a component, but it is not the focus of the two bills,” he said.

What is the focus?

“Protect the right of someone to exercise their conscience. People are being compelled to do things against their conscience. ... Some have deep-seated beliefs that life begins at conception.” Speaking for his own faith and others, he said there is no desire to be complicit in, for example, abortion activities, or supporting someone who purchases a contraceptive “that violates their personal religious beliefs.”

What is the thrust of HB 426, which applies to dozens of licensed professional/occupational positions — everything from chiropractors and counselors to barbers and nurses?

“If you make a decision (to refuse service or to not participate) based on sincerely held religious beliefs, to act or not act, you can not lose your license,” Luker said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t be fired from your job. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be sued for discrimination.”

What is the idea behind HB 427, which seems to offer a defense strategy for those who might refuse to participate because of faith?

“Courts use a compelling state interest test. In order to override that fundamental interest, the government has to show a compelling state interest in order to do that,” he said. HB 427 would establish the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a tool for individuals, not just governments.

Mistaken perceptions?

“This bill does not allow or encourage discrimination,” Luker said. “It does not oppress gay and lesbian people and their choices — all it is, is a bill that says if we have a religious objection, we shouldn’t be compelled to celebrate your choice.”

Though Luker’s bill — and existing law — would not permit someone to refuse emergency medical treatment or public safety tasks, it is also not supposed to inflict any injury, emotional or otherwise.

When religious conviction collides with other human rights, it is hard to believe it is not going to leave a mark.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6437, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho.

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