AUGUSTA, Maine — The Senate narrowly defeated a controversial “religious freedom” bill on Tuesday over the objections of proponents who say the bill would affirm personal rights that everyone should support.

The Senate voted 19-16 in favor of a 9-4 “ought not to pass” recommendation from the Judiciary Committee. The bill now goes to the House for further consideration.

LD 1428, sponsored by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, would have protected 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.” It would have opened to door for anyone who believes their religious rights are being infringed upon a legal defense in court or against an enforcement action.

Some argued that the bill goes too far and could create a path to unraveling the state’s same-sex marriage law and whittle away at the federal Affordable Care Act, specifically the provision that requires health insurance plans to pay for contraceptives.

Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, repeated arguments she made during the committee process that religious freedom is already guaranteed by the Maine and U.S. Constitution, as well as the Maine Human Rights Act.

“I see this bill as a step backwards. I see this bill as being filled with unintended consequences,” said Valentino. “I see this bill as being used as an end run around the Maine Human Rights Act. … It is trying to erode the existing women’s rights and gay rights that we have fought so hard to attain.”

Burns, during a lengthy debate in the Senate Tuesday morning, said his bill is “reasonable and much needed” and that it would have simply bolstered and made clearer protections that are already in place.

“This law basically says that the government should be held to a very high level of proof before it enacts a law,” said Burns. “This is about government. this isn’t about private citizens against private citizens. It does not allow religious people to get away with anything they want to. It does not guarantee claimants a victory in government actions. It simply requires that the government has a strong justification.”

The bill encountered significant opposition, including from Attorney General Janet Mills, the Maine Municipal Association, the Maine Mayors Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Equality Maine, the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, the Maine Education Association, and others.

Part of the argument against the bill is that it models protections already guaranteed by the federal 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, though the Supreme Court later ruled that the federal government can’t impose the law on the states.

Tuesday’s vote was mostly along party lines except for Sen. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, who voted with Republicans against the ought not to pass recommendation. Sen. Richard Woodbury, I-Yarmouth, voted with Democrats against the bill.

Oamshri Amarasingham, policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine, has been staunchly against the bill.

“Freedom of religion is a fundamental right that is protected by both the Bill of Rights and the Maine Constitution. LD 1428 goes beyond those protections, allowing a person to use personal religious beliefs to claim the right to break important laws that are meant to protect us all,” said Amarasingham in a written statement.

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.