“Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, this state shall not take any adverse action against a person, wholly or partially, on the basis that such person acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction about the institution of marriage.”

That is the opening sentence of the substantive portion of HB 707, state Rep. Mike Johnson’s ode to “religious freedom.” Regardless of Johnson’s intent, that sentence alone shows how very dangerous it is. If passed, HB 707 will undermine the entire structure of Louisiana law, protecting lawbreakers of all kinds who act “in accordance with” their “moral conviction” about the “institution of marriage.”

As an example, let’s say a husband is beating his wife. The police arrive, and the husband declares that his “moral conviction” about the “institution of marriage” is that he’s entitled to discipline his wife and she must submit. Under HB 707, the “state shall not take any adverse action against” this man, “notwithstanding any other law to the contrary.” The abuser can’t be arrested, prosecuted or convicted — regardless of the current Louisiana criminal code — because he acted in accordance with his “moral conviction.”

Similarly, a police officer who believes in a husband’s right to discipline his wife would have a license to refuse to arrest. HB 707, prohibiting the state from taking action that would “otherwise discriminate against or disadvantage such person,” protects the officer from adverse consequences.

Less physically dangerous but still very harmful consequences include full protection for a judge’s refusal to grant divorces based on a “moral conviction” against divorce; a clerk’s refusal to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple or a new driver’s license to a woman who changes her name on divorce or marriage; a teacher’s refusal to instruct a child of a single mother; and many others.

HB 707 clearly and unequivocally overrides “any other law to the contrary,” and allows anyone to “assert an actual or threatened violation” (“threatened” — not real) to “obtain compensatory damages” against the state. In other words, someone who thinks a “moral conviction” about marriage might be threatened, regardless of any other law granting protection to a vulnerable person, could sue the state for damages. Taxpayers of Louisiana would have to pay to defend the lawsuit and pay damages regardless of what other laws might be broken.

Protecting lawbreakers is chaos, not “religious freedom.” HB 707 must be stopped. We deserve better.

Marjorie R. Esman

executive director, ACLU and ACLU Foundation of Louisiana

New Orleans