AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill intended to protect religious freedom, but which opponents said would have opened the door to the use of religion to justify illegal discrimination and Maine Human Rights Act violations, suffered a serious blow Thursday when the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee voted 8-4 against passage.

Thursday’s vote came after considerable debate, which drew dozens of people and advocacy groups to a public hearing and rallies at the State House last month. LD 1428, which was amended substantially from its original version, would have mirrored the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. In essence, the bill sought to protect the right to the free exercise of religion in Maine by guaranteeing that no state law would infringe on a person’s free exercise of religion unless the law is necessary to further a compelling state interest.

From a practical perspective, it would have given anyone who believes their religious rights are being infringed upon a legal defense in court or against an enforcement action, though the bill’s opponents argued that religious rights are already protected in the U.S. Constitution and the Maine Human Rights Act.

Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, the lead sponsor of the bill and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said part of its worth was that it would have made clear to all levels of government how they should react to situations involving the religious freedoms of employees or constituents, possibly preventing some conflicts from ending up in court.

“To me it’s very inappropriate to stand back and say there’s already a law to cover that,” said Burns during debate on his bill Thursday afternoon. “Why shouldn’t we have a set of clear standards that everybody follows, just as the federal government does and all these other states do?”

A total of 18 other states have some version of a religious freedom law in place.

Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, Senate chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, voted against the bill.

“It’s premature to necessarily throw a blanket over everything right now,” said Valentino. “If we have problems, I think we should deal with them on an individual basis. I just feel that the Maine statutes are already protecting the people of the state of Maine.”

Valentino and others cited several of what they acknowledged were extreme and unlikely examples of how the law could be abused, including a student claiming his religion calls for bringing weapons to school. Their point was that with thousands of religions in the world, there is no way to anticipate what issues might arise and that they should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

“I think it’s absurd for us to take that position,” said Burns. “The thing we’re missing here and what we seem to be glossing over is that for over 20 years we have been living under this standard federally. … One of the things we do in society is we look at past practice in order to make a determination. Past practice has demonstrated over and over again that these guidelines would bring clarity. They don’t open the floodgates for litigation and they don’t cause confusion.”

Rep. Matthew Moonen, D-Portland, based part of his opposition to the bill on what he’s seen happen in recent years as lawmakers and Mainers debated same-sex marriage — with some religious organizations leading the opposition. Moonen said he views that as an example of religious people doing to gay people exactly what they are trying to protect themselves from in Burns’ bill.

“I find this bill offensive more or less because some people have chosen to use their faith as a weapon against some people who don’t share their beliefs,” said Moonen. “Now that they’ve lost those fights and spent millions of dollars to enshrine their beliefs in law and lost, they’re the ones supporting this bill.”

The committee’s 8-4 recommendation to the Legislature against passing the bill was mostly along party lines, with all of the Democrats and Rep. Michael Beaulieu, R-Auburn, voting in the majority.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.