The debate over state religious freedom laws will likely hit Louisiana when the legislative session starts later this month.
A north Louisiana House member is proposing legislation he claims is intended to protect people from discrimination based on their opinions of same-sex marriage — whether they are for or against.
House Bill 707 would bar the state from punishing businesses and people for their views on same-sex marriage through denying or revoking state licenses, tax deductions or contracts, among other methods. The bill, which has been dubbed the “Louisiana Marriage and Conscience Act,” also would set up an avenue for legal action against the state by people who feel they have been discriminated against based on those views.
State Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, filed the bill just before the state Legislature’s Friday prefiling deadline. The legislative session begins April 13 and ends June 11.
Unlike legislation in Indiana and Arkansas that sparked debate and demonstrations over the potential for discrimination against gays and lesbians, Johnson claims his legislation only applies to state government actions. It also specifically addresses views on marriage, rather than blanket religious protections. Louisiana in 2010 adopted a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The Indiana and Arkansas laws drew intense backlash and were later amended amid fears that they paved the way for businesses to refuse service to gay people. The controversial measures included provisions that were seen as a means of shielding businesses from private discrimination lawsuits if they cited religious objections. Several major businesses and sports organizations came out publicly against the proposals there.
In a news release, Johnson, an attorney, claimed that his legislation would prevent the state from denying or revoking licenses, accreditation or contracts from businesses or people based solely on their views of marriage.
“In other words, state government will never be allowed to bully or coerce people simply because of what they believe about marriage,” he said.
But gay-rights advocates say they worry that the legislation is still intended to foster discrimination in Louisiana.
“It is clear that the ‘Louisiana Marriage and Conscience Act’ aims to allow discrimination against the gay and transgender people in our state. In spite of claims otherwise, there can be no mistake about whom this new bill is targeting,” Equality Louisiana spokesman Micah Caswell said in a statement. “With a decision coming from the Supreme Court that could possibly allow same-sex couples in Louisiana to obtain marriage licenses, Rep. Johnson is trying to pre-emptively give individuals and businesses a way to disregard federal laws and rulings.”
According to Johnson, several legislators have expressed an interest in becoming co-sponsors of his bill.
In an op-ed posted online, Johnson further explained his intentions and responded to the backlash he’s faced since first disclosing plans to push legislation that would specifically protect views on marriage.
“Why is this so urgent? Because leading legal scholars concur that conflicts between religious liberty and changing ideas about the institution of marriage are very real, rapidly increasing, and should be addressed by legislation,” Johnson wrote. “To maintain that vital commitment, state legislatures need to act now to ensure that the fundamental right of conscience is always protected against government intrusion and coercion.”
In the proposed bill, Johnson has cited “changing ideas about the institution of marriage” and even President Barack Obama’s remarks about the nation’s “wide range of views” on marriage.