‘Religious freedom’ bill sponsor, defender: 'Threats to religious freedom are not hypothetical' _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MARK BALLARD -- State Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, addresses the Louisiana House on April 14, 2015, on his religious freedom bill.

Is Louisiana destined for a rerun of the recent controversy in Indiana?

We hope not, because the state already has enough on its plate dealing with a major budget crisis and continuing challenges in education and economic development. That’s why we’re wary of a bill in the session of the Legislature that purports to advance tolerance, yet seems driven by irrational fears.

According to critics, a new Indiana law would have allowed a faith-based exemption to anti-discrimination laws. Groups planning events in Indiana threatened cancellation; companies said they would reconsider plans to expand in the state; Mark Emmert, the former LSU chancellor who now heads the NCAA, weighed in with the sports world’s denunciation of any effort to weaken anti-discrimination laws.

Louisiana doesn’t need an Indiana-style headache, particularly with the short fiscal session of the Legislature embroiled by the state’s huge budget crisis.

Our state already has a “religious freedom” law that is intended to provide protection for people exercising what Gov. Bobby Jindal calls sincerely held faith beliefs.

The spark for new controversy is over gay marriage, which is not legal in Louisiana but is becoming so in many other states.

A newly elected member of the state House, Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, proposes a variant of the new religious-freedom laws in House Bill 707, which would forbid the state from using its tax or grant-making authority to punish individuals who oppose gay marriage. There’s also a catch-all provision that forbids the state to “otherwise discriminate against or disadvantage” a person who opposes gay marriage — language so broad and vague that it practically invites future litigation.

Johnson already has added an amendment stipulating that his bill “shall not be construed to authorize any act of discrimination,” an apparent olive branch to critics who see the proposed legislation as an exercise in gay-bashing. This issue is so contentious that any nod toward compromise is welcome. But the underlying premise of HB707 — that the state is poised to attack religious liberty and that yet another law is needed prevent it from doing so — is farfetched.

Johnson’s bill is a needless distraction as the Legislature confronts more serious challenges to Louisiana’s future. Lawmakers have more important things to spend their time on.