AUGUSTA — A divided legislative committee voted Thursday against a bill that supporters said would affirm a constitutional protection that prohibits the government from infringing on the right to worship.

With a preliminary vote of 8-4, the Judiciary Committee sided with opponents who said 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 separate vote rejected an amendment that would have aligned the bill with federal law protecting religious freedom.

The Maine Senate will consider the bill next, with the committee’s recommendation that it be rejected.

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 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.

“The courts don’t have clear, concise guidelines to defend (religious freedom),” he said. “This would give them that.”

He said states that have adopted similar laws have not been inundated with lawsuits, as opponents predicted. “I can’t imagine why we’d want to be an outlier on this,” he said.

Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, said the bill could be amended to merely mirror the federal law. “If you’re against the federal law, then vote against this bill,” he said.

On Thursday, lawmakers who voted against the bill said it would complicate religious freedoms that are already protected.

“I believe in religious freedom,” Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco. “But I don’t think putting another layer on is going to help people understand what their rights are.”

Rep. Lisa Villa, D-Harrison, said the bill would open up a “Pandora’s box.”

Opponents said the federal Restoration of Religious Freedom Act could face challenges, pending the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case that will be heard this year. That case centers on the Affordable Care Act and a dispute over whether certain sized companies can use the federal law to avoid a requirement to offer insurance for birth control and other reproductive health services without a co-pay.

Rep. Matthew Moonen, D-Portland, called the proposal offensive. He said some faith organizations had spent millions of dollars to deny gay couples the right to marry and now were “playing the victim” by claiming that they had been discriminated against based on their religion.

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.

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

Similar bills have been rejected in other states for fear that they could be used to justify refusal of health care and other services.

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

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