‘Religious freedom’ bill sponsor, defender: 'Threats to religious freedom are not hypothetical' _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MARK BALLARD -- State Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, addresses the Louisiana House on April 14, 2015, on his religious freedom bill.

State Rep. Mike Johnson said his religious freedom bill, which seeks to carve out protections for people who oppose same-sex marriage, has been misrepresented and misunderstood and has been unfairly linked to controversial measures in Indiana and Arkansas.

Johnson, a first-term Bossier City Republican, got a rare opportunity on Tuesday to make an early case for his “Marriage and Conscience Act” from the House floor.

“Laws that protect the free exercise of religious beliefs or moral convictions about marriage serve to encourage private citizens and institutions to demonstrate similar tolerance,” he said. “Therefore, they contribute to a more respectful, diverse and peaceful society.”

Johnson’s bill has faced a sharp backlash in recent weeks as critics slammed it as being “anti-gay.” They argued that, similar to the initial Arkansas and Indiana proposals, it could encourage discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Equality Louisiana and other groups in support of gay rights have launched a “Not My Louisiana” campaign against Johnson’s legislation.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, has called the proposal “bigotry enshrouded in religion.”

Despite full-throated support from Gov. Bobby Jindal, Johnson’s bill was left Monday in legislative limbo after it had not been assigned to a committee to be vetted. On Tuesday, it was sent to the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure.

Johnson has offered up several amendments, which will come up in committee, but he said he wasn’t promised anything to get the bill moved forward.

A key change he has proposed: The legislation would include a disclaimer that, if enacted, the Louisiana Marriage and Conscience Act would not authorize discrimination based on sexual orientation. But the amendment also makes it clear that the bill is meant to protect those who oppose same-sex marriage. The initial version protected beliefs on same-sex marriage, whether for or against.

“I think there’s so much misunderstanding about this bill going on,” Johnson said after his floor speech. “This does not allow discrimination against anybody.”

At its core, Johnson’s legislation would bar the state from revoking the licenses of or refusing to contract with businesses or people because they oppose same-sex marriage. It also would protect tax statuses of groups that only support marriage between a man and a woman.

“These threats to religious freedom are not hypothetical,” Johnson said, citing three cases he claimed as proof of retribution against people or groups who oppose same-sex marriage.

The legislation was the only bill Jindal individually referenced during Monday’s State of the State speech, and the governor’s office sent a news release of 650-something words to media in defense of the legislation late Tuesday.

“All this bill does is provide necessary protections for individuals to prevent adverse treatment from the state based on religious beliefs regarding marriage. This legislation does not allow a restaurant or industry to refuse service to a gay or lesbian person,” Jindal said in his speech, noting his intention to fight for the bill’s passage.

On Tuesday, Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Bates Dirmann reiterated to The Advocate the governor’s commitment to the bill.

“Rep. Johnson is taking a bold stand to bring this legislation, and we strongly support it. We believe that the Legislature should give it a fair hearing,” she said.

Johnson said he also hopes to see the bill get a “fair hearing.”

He said he feels he’s been unfairly linked to controversial proposals in Indiana and Arkansas because of timing and has “attracted an inordinate amount of attention.”

“It’s unfortunate,” he said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.