Maine ‘religious freedom’ bill backed by entire Senate GOP leadership team

Just a housekeeping note: Sen. David Burns’ “Act to Enact the Preservation of Religious Freedom Act” has been printed and given an LD number — 1340. The text of the bill is the same as I reported last week.

Burns says the bill is about protecting Mainers’ right to free exercise of religion from unnecessarily burdensome state law. The bill is nearly identical in substance to the controversial religious freedom law passed recently in Indiana — the one that sparked national controversy and debate over whether religious conviction can justify discrimination, specifically against gays and lesbians.

While the bill language is nothing new to regular readers, what is new is the list of sponsors.

Until now, the bill has been the sole property of Burns, a Whiting Republican. He presented a similar bill last year, before Indiana and Arkansas thrust these kinds of ‘religious freedom’ laws into the spotlight, but it was killed in the Senate.

Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport. BDN file photo by Gabor Degre.

Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport. BDN file photo by Gabor Degre.

Undeterred by the controversy surrounding the bill, the entire Senate GOP leadership team has signed their names as cosponsors, including Senate President Michael Thibodeau of Winterport, Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon and Assistant Majority Leader Andre Cushing of Hampden.

In fact, the bill’s support is decidedly partisan. Other co-sponsors include Sen. Paul Davis of Sangerville and Reps. Dale Crafts of Lisbon, Sheldon Hannington of Lincoln, Ricky Long of Sherman and Richard Pickett of Dixfield — all Republicans. Rep. John Henry Bear of the Houlton Band of Maliseets is also a co-sponsor.

LD 1340 will be sent to the Judiciary Committee, of which Burns is the senate chairman. A date for public hearing has not yet been scheduled. Democrats, who control a majority in the House, and civil rights groups have pledged to fight the bill.

The bill is embedded below. It’s “findings” — sort of an oddity for a nonemergency bill — are lifted straight from the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. That’s the law cited by Hobby Lobby in its landmark U.S. Supreme Court victory, in which the craft store giant successfully argued that its religious conviction was sufficient grounds for it to violate a federal law requiring it to provide health insurance that covered birth control.

The important language, though, is found in the definition of “substantial burden” on religious exercise, and is lifted from the Indiana law, fueling fears among gay rights and civil rights advocates that the law will pave the way for legalized discrimination by conflicting with Maine’s existing anti-discrimination laws.

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House. Mario left the BDN in 2015.