If Louisiana legislators have put any bill in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” category, it would be the “Marriage and Conscience Act.”
Initially, the House did not assign a committee to hear the controversial House Bill 707, which would protect people who oppose same-sex marriage.
Coming off angry uproars in Arkansas and Indiana, particularly for Republican politicians because the issue pits against each other two important wings of the GOP — business interests versus conservative Christians — many Louisiana representatives have been hoping it would pretty much go away. They’re already facing tough votes on the budget during an election year and haven’t been clamoring to add another electorally divisive issue to their workload.
Gov. Bobby Jindal made HB707 a thing by specifically mentioning it in his State of the State address. Still, Jindal’s legislative allies and aides say they’ve been more focused on the budget than buttonholing legislators on this issue. Even the governor himself seems to be lobbying the measure only in Iowa, where presidential primaries have favored conservative Christian candidates.
With about three-and-a-half weeks left in this legislative session, the measure will get a hearing Tuesday in the House Civil Law and Procedure committee.
“The original bill caused a lot of consternation,” said New Orleans Rep. Neil Abramson, who chairs the panel.
Rookie Rep. Mike Johnson, the Bossier City Republican who sponsors the legislation, says he’ll make the language more specific so that it can’t be used as a vehicle for discrimination against gay people. In a video, Johnson said his measure “would prevent the state from denying a person or entity something that they would otherwise be entitled to simply because of their view that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.”
But the changes might be too late to persuade Louisiana legislators.
“I don’t know if anything is good enough, at this point, regardless of the substance of what he proposes,” Abramson said. “The horse has left the barn.”
Some Christians base their opposition to gay marriage on Bible verses, including a passage that tells of the destruction of a city in which homosexuality was practiced. The fear is that the wave of acceptance for same-sex marriage may morph into discrimination against Christians who remain opposed as a matter of faith.
For instance, in late April, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries recommended Sweet Cakes by Melissa pay $135,000 in damages for refusing to make a cake for a lesbian wedding. (The final decision rests with that state’s labor commissioner.)
But it’s also true that same-sex marriages are not recognized in Louisiana, meaning partners can’t automatically share in tax, retirement and insurance benefits, which are routinely granted unions between one man and one woman. Civil right protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are not recognized in this state, which allows for discrimination, such as the ability of landlords to refuse to rent on the basis of sexual orientation.
“The issue is so radioactive that most people will not look at the details,” said J. Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau.
As chief of staff for Gov. Mike Foster, Perry was the guy who brought Jindal into state government. The governor appointed him to the LSU Board of Supervisors. But he will testify against the bill on Tuesday.
Perry says he’s been getting disturbing reports from his sales team. They’re saying big corporations and national trade associations are worried about holding their conventions in New Orleans.
If convention and tourism business drops off by 10 percent — not an unreasonable estimate, he says — that translates to $700 million in lost revenues in the city.
If Jindal has succeeded at anything during his term, it has been to bring national politics to Louisiana. Lately, Jindal has been trying to smooth the tensions between the two bases of the Republican Party.
“This strategy requires populist social conservatives to ally with the business community on economic matters and corporate titans to side with social conservatives on cultural matters. This is the grand bargain that makes freedom’s defense possible,” Jindal wrote in The New York Times.
Civil Law committee hearings generally are as quiet as an appellate court, except the members don’t wear robes. The rhetoric is technical and the tone is mild. Chairman Abramson acknowledges that Tuesday’s hearing may be somewhat louder.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and is on Twitter @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.