Artists dip their brushes to paint Acadiana scenes in weeklong competition _lowres

(James Michael 'Mike' Johnson) Mike Johnson, Louisiana College Law School dean

If the so-called Pastor Protection Act is redundant and unnecessary, it is also very poorly timed.

No one that we know of, including the sponsors of this new House Bill 597, argue that clergy today are at risk of being frogmarched to the altar to perform a gay wedding. If nothing else, and it is important indeed, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids government interference in religion.

But as we have seen in other states, opposition to gay marriage is a useful political tool to use “freedom of conscience” as a smokescreen for bills that chip away at the anti-discrimination laws that generally enjoy wide support.

State Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, is a candidate for Congress this fall, and he transparently wants for political purposes to pass some variation of this bill; his similar measure last year was bottled up in a House committee. After amending the bill to narrow its scope slightly, a new House Civil Law panel sent it to the full House on a 7-3 vote.

Gov. John Bel Edwards opposed the original bill last year but said it is now innocuous. We wish that were so, but the court of public opinion is still out.

In Mississippi and North Carolina, these kinds of bills have ignited firestorms, leading people around the country to conclude that the South — already tarred with its history of discrimination against African-Americans — is now in another jihad against gay Americans, whose rights to equal treatment before the law are now widely, but not universally, accepted.

Businesses have protested the new laws, correctly saying that playing with discrimination law because of non-existent threats sends the wrong signal for companies seeking to hire in a tough, worldwide competition for the best talent. At least one national business canceled a 400-job expansion in North Carolina because of the new law there.

In New Orleans in particular, but across Louisiana, big business is not just about companies. It is about people in national organizations making critical decisions about where to hold conventions and meetings. The decision-making process for tourism is not the same as for an industrial facility; railroads and river access aren’t the drivers.

Despite the enormous advantages New Orleans has as a convention city in objective factors such as hotels and entertainment, the fact is that any hint of a discriminatory law here can sway a selection committee to one of our competitors, threatening millions of dollars in losses to Louisiana’s economy and the jobs of those who work at these events.

Declaring in today’s environment that this bill is innocuous may make legal sense to the governor, a lawyer. But he ought to reflect on the livelihood of people in New Orleans and other cities in Louisiana where travel is a major economic contributor. No executive order from Edwards on state employee protections is likely to shield Louisiana tourism when the perception of anti-gay discrimination gains ground because of a new state law as envisioned in Johnson’s bill.

Given that there is no need for HB 597, as everyone says, why take any risk that we shall become guilty by association with North Carolina and Mississippi?