AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate on Tuesday rejected a bill that supporters said would affirm a constitutional protection that prohibits the government from infringing on the right to worship.

The preliminary vote of 19-16 broke along party lines, with the Democratic majority opposing the measure.

The bill was rejected in a party line vote by the Judiciary Committee last month, with Democrats arguing that the proposal went too far to protect rights that are already constitutionally enshrined. Critics said the bill might allow people to ignore or break laws and discriminate under the guise of religious freedom.

A key provision of the bill states that no state law can infringe on a person’s exercise of religion unless that law constituted a “compelling state interest.” Opponents argued that the bill would have led to a flood of legal cases from people claiming that a rule or law infringed on their ability to worship. 

Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, said the proposal was filled with unintended consequences that could be exploited by a “few extremists” to circumvent the state’s Human Rights Act or by others to fight a contraception provision within the Affordable Care Act.

The bill, L.D. 1428, sponsored by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, is similar to legislation proposed in other states and enacted in several.

The proposals are backed by faith organizations that say a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision unraveled key protections of the First Amendment. In 1993, President Clinton tried to bring back some of those protections when he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A second court decision left it up to states to adopt the federal standard.

Burns has said his bill, co-sponsored by eight Republicans and one Democrat, would bring Maine closer to the federal law. The bill was supported by the Christian Civic League of Maine, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland and other faith organizations, and the Maine Right to Life Committee.

Burns said it would clarify constitutional rights and further compel courts to defend them.

He described the bill as a balancing test for government before it can impede an individual’s religious expression.

“This is not a partisan issue, it’s an American issue,” Burns said.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the bill should unite Democrats and Republicans. He said other states have enacted similar measures and there hasn’t been “the parade of horribles” that opponents claimed would occur here.

Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission, told lawmakers last month that the bill could nullify the Maine Human Rights Act by prioritizing religious belief over all other rights protected in the act.

The Maine Medical Association also opposed the bill. It expressed concern that it would expand so-called conscience provisions that could end up preventing patients from accessing family planning health care and abortion services, and allow medical workers to deny primary care services, prenatal care, treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, blood transfusions or any other service that conflicted with a health provider’s religious views.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler