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Democrat gives new life to transgender bathroom bill in Kentucky

In the wake of controversy over proposed bathroom bills, a 21C Museum Hotel in Durham, NC, posted this sign outside its bathroom.
In the wake of controversy over proposed bathroom bills, a 21C Museum Hotel in Durham, NC, posted this sign outside its bathroom. AP

A Democratic state lawmaker has revived Republican proposals to govern transgender use of public bathrooms and weaken local ordinances prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

State Rep. Rick Nelson of Middlesboro said he wasn’t aware of the two issues being problems in Kentucky, “but we want to be vigilant about what could happen.”

Nelson said he knows that Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, recently scoffed at the idea of a law requiring people to choose public bathrooms according to their biological sex. Similar laws recently caused a huge furor in North Carolina after several businesses, sporting events and entertainers canceled their plans in the state. They also are credited with the narrow upset of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s re-election bid.

When asked about the possibility of a bathroom bill during a news conference in December, Bevin responded: “Why would we? Why would anybody need it? Is it an issue? Is there anyone you know in Kentucky who has trouble going to the bathroom? Seriously. Have you heard of one person in Kentucky having trouble taking care of business in Kentucky?”

Bevin said “the last thing we need is more government rules.”

Although the Republican-led state Senate favored a bill limiting transgender students to school bathrooms that match their biological sex in 2015, GOP leaders of the House and Senate have said they want to focus this year on economic issues rather than social issues.

Louisville Democrat Jim Wayne, a frequent Bevin opponent, joked about Nelson’s bathroom bill: “I agree 100 percent with my governor on this issue. He is awesome. Just leave it alone.”

More seriously, Wayne asked: “Are you seriously going to frighten the NCAA away from the (Louisville) Yum Center on this?”

Last year, Bevin joined about 20 other states in suing the federal government over rules requiring public schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms conforming to their gender identity.

Nelson’s “religious freedom” bill is similar to a proposal approved by the Republican-led Senate last year that would prohibit the government from compelling services or actions from anyone if doing so conflicted with their sincerely held religious beliefs. It also would clarify that businesses could not be punished in such cases for violating local ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Such ordinances already exist in Covington, Danville, Frankfort, Lexington, Louisville, Midway, Morehead and Vicco.

Nelson said his House Bill 105 would “give business people more freedom to set the rules for their own businesses,” including the right, for example, for a baker to refuse to make a cake for a gay wedding.

Chris Hartman, director of the Kentucky Fairness Campaign, called the proposals a direct attack on LGBT Kentuckians.

“The effect of passing this type of discriminatory legislation is clear. It will cost the state millions of dollars,” Hartman said. “If Kentucky lawmakers want to remain focused on improving our commonwealth’s economy, this is exactly the legislation they should avoid. Furthermore, if Kentucky fans hope to host NCAA college basketball championship games in the future, they must speak out against HB 105 and HB 106.”

Nelson said he hoped the bills would spark good discussions on the issues.

“We’ll just have to see where it goes,” he said.

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