Religious organizations are studying Louisiana’s Preservation of Religious Freedom Act to see how it can be updated to match the Indiana and Arkansas versions that have provoked intense gay rights protests in those two states.
But election year politics, and a shorter legislative session that deals primarily with fiscal issues, may postpone any bills until next year, said the Rev. Gene Mills, who heads the Louisiana Family Forum, which advocates for religious and family-oriented policies.
That, and timing too, says state Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City and a lawyer who specializes in religious issues. “The challenge we have is the deadline is Friday” to file legislation for the session that begins April 13.
More than 500 protesters crowded the halls of the State Capitol in Little Rock chanting “Shame on you.”
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, also a Republican, on Tuesday morning asked his General Assembly to add clarifying language to ensure that a similar bill that he signed into law last week does not inadvertently discriminate against gays, lesbians and others.
Activists and businessmen, including Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple Corp., criticized Pence and Indiana for approving the law.
Mark Emmert, a former LSU chancellor who is now president of the NCAA, which is hosting college basketball’s Final Four in Indianapolis this weekend, told MSNBC on Tuesday that Indiana’s new law goes against what higher education and America are all about.
Louisiana is one of 20 states that now have “Freedom of Religion” statutes. The laws are patterned on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled does not apply to the states.
Court opinions since 2010, when Louisiana’s version became law, may necessitate the need for some legislative tweaking, Mills said.
The bills approved in Arkansas and Indiana differ from the Louisiana version — and those in other states — in that they extend religious protections given to individuals to businesses, as well.
“Much of the uproar has been a misrepresentation of fact,” Mills said.
All the Arkansas and Indiana measures do, Mills and other backers said, is give a business owner the right to say “no thanks” to performing a task he opposes on religious grounds without being sued.
For example, Mills, a minister, conducts marriages.
“The question is, if I’m approached by a same-sex couple, and I respectfully decline, does that become grounds for discrimination (lawsuits) or hate speech,” Mills said. “I don’t think you can or should be able to force a business owner to violate their conscience.”
Matthew Patterson, the political coordinator for Equality Louisiana, which advocates for policy and legislation on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, said that by extending the religious protection to businesses, a restaurant can refuse service based on sexual preference of the diner.
The business owner doesn’t “have to know; they can assume. And as the customer, there’s nothing I can do. It’s all the business owner’s interpretation,” Patterson said. “That sounds a lot like discrimination to me.”
“The intention behind (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) is noble,” state Rep. Johnson said. “We don’t want anyone discriminated against, on both sides, because of their views on marriage.”
Johnson is a nationally recognized lawyer who works for a public interest law firm “that works to defend religious liberty, the sanctity of human life, marriage and the family.”
Johnson said a number of legislators and advocates are poring over Louisiana’s law and comparing it to how religious freedom laws are being interpreted now and how the Arkansas and Indiana versions are worded.
“There are some who believe that we need to make it more specific or come up with a new statute” to include specifically the views people have on marriage, Johnson said. “We also have the right on conscience and the right of free thought.”
When different rights compete, Johnson said, he thinks freedom of religion prevails because it is the first one listed in the Bill of Rights.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is flirting with the idea of running for president, released a prepared statement Tuesday blasting liberals and Hillary Clinton, whose husband signed the federal law as president.
“The fact that there are some who think this law in Indiana, which merely makes it clear that local governments must respect our religious liberty, is controversial, clearly shows that religious liberty is indeed under attack,” Jindal’s statement says. “I oppose discrimination and I reject the notion that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is discriminatory.”
Jindal said in another prepared statement that he would be supportive of legislation “that would strengthen religious liberty protections in Louisiana.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs. theadvocate.com/politicsblog.