AUGUSTA — The three top Republicans in the Maine Senate have signed on as co-sponsors of a so-called religious freedom bill similar to legislation that has sparked controversy, protests and threats of boycotts in Indiana and other states.

The text of the bill released Tuesday shows it mirrors one that failed in the Legislature last year, largely along party lines. Even more attention is expected this year, spurred by the heated national debate surrounding the measures, which supporters claim protect against government infringement on religion but opponents contend open the door to discrimination.

“It is going to be controversial,” said Sen. David Burns, the Whiting Republican who introduced the bill and who chairs the committee likely to review the measure. Burns declined to comment further.

The bill, L.D. 1340, says that state and local governments cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless there is a “compelling governmental interest.” The legislation states that exercise of religion includes “the ability to act or refuse to act in a manner substantially motivated by a person’s sincerely held religious belief.”

Supporters argue that such laws are needed to prevent individuals or business owners from having to provide services that effectively support or sanction activities – such as a same-sex marriage – that violate their religious beliefs.

But the language of the bills in Maine and elsewhere has prompted others to worry that business owners, landlords or corporations could refuse to serve, say, a same-sex couple or other groups that are protected from discrimination under Maine law.

Burns picked up the support of his party’s three Senate leaders: President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls and Assistant Majority Leader Andre Cushing of Hampden.

Opponents suggested Tuesday that the bill threatens to bring the same type of protests and national media attention seen in Indiana, Arkansas and other states.

“I think businesses in Maine should be very fearful of the negative consequences of being a state that openly discriminates,” said Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland, the Democratic leader in the Senate. “We are a state that depends heavily on what people perceive Maine to be … and for our state to be perceived as a state that openly can discriminate against someone’s sexual orientation, I think that’s a position we should not be putting ourselves into.”

GROWING MOVEMENT ACROSS COUNTRY

The Maine State Chamber of Commerce’s policy committee has yet to take a position on Burns’ bill, but Chamber Vice President Peter Gore said Tuesday members are watching the issue “very, very closely.”

“It’s a bill that has obvious concerns for us,” Gore said.

At least 16 states are considering legislation this year to create or alter a state religious freedom law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The group’s website says 21 states already have some version of a religious freedom law modeled after a 1993 federal law titled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Supporters contend the state laws are necessary to protect against government overreach into individuals’ religious lives.

The recent resurgence of interest in the laws coincides with the wave of policy changes and court orders across the country allowing same-sex couples to marry. But it also follows last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing the company Hobby Lobby to not offer employees coverage for some contraceptives through the company’s health insurance plan.

Indiana became ground zero in the national debate last month.

Facing a growing political backlash threatening the state’s reputation, Indiana lawmakers eventually tweaked the law to clarify that it could not be used to justify discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered individuals. Corporate giants such as Apple and Wal-Mart, as well as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is headquartered in Indianapolis, criticized the law.

Cushing, who also co-sponsored Burns’ religious freedom bill last year, believes it is healthy to debate the issue and to raise awareness about concerns regarding potential infringement on religious freedom.

“We are in danger of losing more freedoms if we continue to try to regulate how people think and act,” Cushing said.

POTENTIAL LEGAL CONFLICT IN MAINE

Burns said this month that he was aware of the controversy in other states, but that he believes the issue is important.

“I put it in last year, and I thought it should have passed last year,” Burns said. “I think it’s reasonable and I think it’s needed. Historically, as you’ve been hearing over and over again, there has not been any bad ramifications because of (the federal law) in 20 years.”

However, Oamshri Amarasingham with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine argued that Burns’ bill actually raises even more legal questions in Maine than in other states considering similar legislation. That’s because the Maine Human Rights Act protects the LGBT community and others from discrimination, thereby creating a potential conflict between the act and the religious freedom bill.

Amarasingham said Maine already has robust religious protections, and she predicted that – as in Indiana and Arkansas – both business leaders and religious leaders will spearhead the fight against Burns’ bill.

“We’ve already had this fight. The Legislature has voted on it,” Amarasingham said. “The free-market response in Indiana and Arkansas has been overwhelming, so I think that will inform the people of Maine and legislators as we go forward.”


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