Citing his desire to send a signal “to the rest of the country that discrimination is not a Louisiana value,” Gov. John Bel Edwards on Wednesday signed an executive order that prohibits discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The executive order immediately bars state government from discriminating against gay and transgender people in employment practices and in the course of offering state services and benefits. State contractors also will have to agree to anti-discrimination terms beginning July 1, but the provision won’t extend to contractors who are religious groups.
“We are fortunate enough to live in a state that is rich with diversity, and we are built on a foundation of unity and fairness for all of our citizens,” Edwards said in a statement. “I believe in giving every Louisianan the opportunity to be successful and to thrive in our state.”
It comes on the heels of controversial actions in other states that have faced criticism of being discriminatory against the LGBT community.
North Carolina, in particular, has faced sharp backlash over a new law that seeks to require transgender people to use public restrooms that match the sex on their birth certificates and excludes sexual orientation and gender identity from that state’s anti-discrimination law.
Mississippi leaders, meanwhile, have come under fire for passing a law that protects religious groups and private businesses from discrimination claims if they refuse services to gay and transgender people because of their religious beliefs.
There currently is no state law protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people from discrimination in Louisiana, so Edwards’ order applies exclusively to state services and government contractors.
Former Govs. Kathleen Blanco and Edwin Edwards signed similar orders protecting gay people from discrimination in state government.
John Bel Edwards’ order also repeals former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s “Marriage and Conscience Order” from last year that carved out protections for state government employees who opposed same-sex marriage.
Advocates say Edwards’ order provides the first statewide legal protections for transgender people in Louisiana.
The move was roundly praised by gay- and transgender-rights advocates on Wednesday.
“This order is a clear statement from Gov. Edwards that discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Louisianians is wrong and should not be tolerated in our state,” said Matthew Patterson, managing director of Equality Louisiana.
But Edwards’ order also faces backlash from some who oppose expanding protections to the LGBT community, at what they see as a cost to religious beliefs against same-sex marriage and views on gender identity.
The Louisiana Family Forum, an influential conservative Christian organization, criticized the order and accused the governor of reneging on an agreement not to extend protections to transgender people.
“Apparently, the governor’s word also had a sunset clause on that issue,” Louisiana Family Forum President Gene Mills said in a statement.
Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo denied that any such promise had been made, and Edwards said the order is careful to protect religious freedom.
“We respect our fellow citizens for their beliefs, but we do not discriminate based on our disagreements,” Edwards said. “While this executive order respects the religious beliefs of our people, it also signals to the rest of the country that discrimination is not a Louisiana value but rather that Louisiana is a state that is respective and inclusive of everyone around us.”
On Tuesday, Edwards signaled that he would sign a so-called “Pastor Protection Act” if it makes it to his desk in the form that advanced through a House committee this week.
Supporters of that bill say it will shield clergy and religious leaders from being penalized if they refused to conduct same-sex marriages. The Family Forum is among that bill’s backers.
But Mills argued that the governor’s executive order doesn’t do enough to protect religious freedom. He said it is “extremely narrow and ignores the multitude of good people of our state who are employed by Louisiana’s largest employer — state government — but who also hold sincerely held religious beliefs with regard to sex outside of the confines of natural lifelong marriage.”
Mills went on to praise the “religious freedom” efforts in other states, like North Carolina and Mississippi.
“Ironically, while other states are seeking to protect people of faith, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards seems to be using his executive power to silence those same people of faith,” Mills said.
In light of the recent pushback in GOP-dominated states, national Democrats seized on the move. The head of the Democratic National Committee praised Edwards’ order as a contrast from the policies of the Republican Party.
“Sadly, anti-LGBT measures have become part of the standard Republican playbook,” DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said. “Discrimination is neither a ‘right’ nor a ‘liberty.’ Hatred holds our nation back and creates divisions where none should exist.”
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu also praised Edwards’ order. The state’s largest city already has a non-discrimination ordinance.
“In New Orleans, diversity is one of our greatest strengths,” Landrieu said. “We believe that religious liberty and freedoms should be protected and discrimination prohibited, and we have passed our own laws to reflect that principle.”