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Voting rights, CROWN Act top legislative priorities for Ky. ACLU

Kentucky Capitol
Ryland Barton
/

The ACLU of Kentucky is calling for state lawmakers to uphold reproductive rights, reform the criminal justice system and pass a statewide fairness ordinance protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination.

Many of the proposals include policies that haven’t gotten traction in the Republican-led legislature in recent years.

And the civil rights organization is poised to push for abortion access, depending on how the state Supreme Court rules on challenges to Kentucky’s near-total ban on abortion.

ACLU communications director Angela Cooper said lawmakers could still pass further abortion rights restrictions, and reproductive rights need to be protected.

“We anticipate continued attacks on abortion rights by the Kentucky General Assembly. Regardless of the outcome of any of the court cases, there are some legislators who are going to continue to hammer away our rights regardless of the state of the courts,” she said.

It’s unclear when the Supreme Court will issue a ruling on the abortion bans. Republican leaders of the legislature have said they’re unsure if they’ll consider further restrictions, or exceptions.

Restoring voting rights

Democratic Rep. Keturrah Herron of Louisville has filed House Bill 97, which would amend the state constitution so that people with certain felony convictions can vote again once they’ve completed their sentences.

Kentucky is one of only three states that permanently bans people who have committed felonies from voting.

ACLU advocacy directory Kate Miller said the organization is “committed to getting the legislature to advance a bill to get it on the ballot and get Kentuckians to vote.”

Since the proposal would amend the state constitution, it would have to pass the legislature and a majority of Kentuckians would have to approve it during a referendum.

In 2019, Beshear signed an executive order to automatically restore the right to vote to more than 140,000 people who have completed felony sentences.A similar measure sponsored by Louisville Republican Rep. Jason Nemes failed to pass in 2020.

The CROWN Act

The CROWN Act would ban discrimination against people based on their natural hair or hairstyles in schools and workplaces. Though no bill has emerged yet, supporters say they’ll file it the first week of February.

CROWN stands for “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” and seeks to protect Kentuckians from being denied educational and employment opportunities because of their hair texture or how they style their hair.

In the 2022 session, a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee approved the bill filed by former Democratic Rep. Attica Scott of Louisville, but the bill failed to get a vote on the House floor Covington and Louisville have already enacted similar local measures.

“Often hair is a proxy for race. So this is really a modest update to our existing civil rights laws,” Miller said.

Legalizing fentanyl test strips

The ACLU is calling for lawmakers to repeal a decades-old policy that classifies fentanyl test strips as drug paraphernalia.

Fentanyl test strips help ascertain whether drugs such as cocaine and pills contain the opioid called fentanyl. The strips play a major role in harm reduction measures and reducing the risk of overdoses.

“This is a very common sense proposal,” Miller said. “We’re pushing to amend the law to ensure that individuals who are engaging in substance use have the information they need. You can only get through recovery if you survive.”

The measure hasn’t been filed yet.

More than 2,000 Kentuckians died from a drug overdose in 2021 according to the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and the Office of Drug Control Policy.

Fentanyl was identified as the cause of 72% of all drug overdoses in the state in 2021, a 16% increase from 2020.

Paraphernalia or "drug-related object" laws were largely passed in the 1970s and 1980s, and laws in many states ban test strips for personal use because they qualify as "drug paraphernalia."

But it’s not just in Kentucky. Fentanyl test strips are illegal to possess and distribute in much of the U.S., including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, most of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Statewide Fairness Ordinance

Advocates are once again pushing to amend the Kentucky Civil Rights Act to create statewide anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ Kentuckians in housing, employment and public accommodation, noting that more anti-trans legislation is anticipated this session.

So far, 24 Kentucky communities ranging from Louisville to Vicco have passed local fairness ordinances.

Though the measure has consistently received bipartisan support, it fails to gain traction in the legislature.

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Divya is Kentucky Public Radio's Capitol Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.