By voting down a proposal to give special protections to people who oppose same-sex marriage, lawmakers thought they had put the divisive issue to bed and ended one of the major controversies of the legislative session.
The defeat seemed a sharp rebuke to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who championed the religious objections bill as a central plank of his legislative agenda.
Instead, lawmakers handed Jindal a way to bolster his rallying cry about “religious liberty” as he uses the nation’s culture wars to help build a likely campaign for president.
Perhaps the Republican governor hoped it might go this way all along.
The defeat gave Jindal the ability to issue an executive order that he could tout across presidential campaign states to showcase his efforts to protect what he describes as religious freedom. And it came the same week Jindal announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee and a group tied to the governor launched an ad in Iowa positioning Jindal as a defender of religious rights.
On Tuesday, the House civil law committee voted 10-2 against the bill proposed by Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, that would have prohibited the state from denying people or businesses any licenses, benefits, jobs or tax deductions because of actions taken “in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction” about marriage.
Johnson framed it as a protection for Christians who believe that marriage should only be between a man and woman, anticipating the U.S. Supreme Court this summer will strike down same-sex marriage bans across the country.
Critics saw it as sanctioning in law discrimination against same-sex couples.
Businesses came out in opposition, much like they did for similar debates in Indiana, Arkansas and other states. Dow Chemical Co. — which employs 6,000 direct workers and contractors in Louisiana — said it would hinder the company’s ability to recruit employees. Tourism leaders said it could heavily damage one of the state’s most important industries.
Lawmakers called the proposal an unnecessary distraction from important work on balancing next year’s budget and stabilizing the state’s finances. The House committee’s shelving of Johnson’s bill was designed to end the controversy.
Jindal, who is courting evangelical Christians for his likely White House bid, seemed to see the committee’s action as an opportunity. He issued an executive order aimed at doing the same thing as Johnson’s bill, albeit in a narrower fashion.
The order prohibits state agencies under Jindal’s control from denying licenses, benefits, contracts or tax deductions in response to actions taken because of someone’s “religious belief that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.”
“We don’t support discrimination in Louisiana and we do support religious liberty. These two values can be upheld at the same time,” Jindal said.
Many suggest the order has no practical effect and is unenforceable because of limits on Jindal’s power through executive order. Jindal’s office dismisses such criticism. But it’s also unclear if enforceability is really the point.
Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, the second-highest ranking member of the Louisiana House, said while lawmakers came to the conclusion the bill wasn’t necessary, “the governor is engaged with something other than trying to deal with real issues in the state of Louisiana.”
Jindal did something similar in relation to the Common Core education standards.
Last year, the governor came out in opposition to the multistate English and math standards, but he did little to bolster efforts from a group of lawmakers trying to remove Common Core from Louisiana’s public schools.
Instead, he waited until the legislative session had ended and the bill had failed, then issued a series of executive orders he said were aimed at getting Louisiana out of Common Core.
The orders had no such effect, and the education standards remain in place.
Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire won’t know if Jindal’s latest executive order, as some contend, really does nothing. And Jindal will get to say he was the fighter for “religious liberty” who put it in place.
Melinda Deslatte covers the state Capitol for The Associated Press.