Planning to reissue an order that in past years served little but symbolic purpose, Democrat Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards again demonstrated his indifference toward religious liberty — even when it would adversely affect his own religious denomination.
Earlier this year, as a state representative, Edwards spoke in committee against a bill that would have protected individuals from government harassment or retaliation for their views on marriage, which are often based in religious belief. Later, he publicly criticized a narrower executive order issued by Gov. Bobby Jindal on this point.
Now, Edwards plans on upping the ante by issuing an executive order similar to former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s KBB 04-054, which Jindal let expire in 2008. It stated, among other things, that all state contracts “shall include a provision that the contractor shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, political affiliation or disabilities in any matter relating to employment.”
For years, the Legislature has rejected multiple attempts to write the special privileging of sexual orientation into law. Businesses need to control hiring, disciplining and firing of employees whose interactions with clients not only may affect their commerce negatively but also can present liability issues. They should not have government dictate whether they must tolerate behavior from employee expressions of sexual orientation in ways harmful to their enterprises.
Of course, if an employer thinks that being forced to have employees who make their preference for certain sexual behaviors known in the workplace would detract from their business, under such an executive order, he need not accept state contracts. However, the matter gets much more complicated when considering the part of Blanco’s executive order that reflects the constitutional protection of the free exercise of religion.
For example, the state has contracted operation of two of its public hospitals to the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, a Catholic religious organization. Catholicism recognizes non-heterosexual behavior as sinful, so their employees who on the job behave or advocate in a way that does not recognize this would transgress that fundamental doctrine, a situation the Franciscans should not have to tolerate.
The executive order Edwards plans would override this understanding and force either contract cancellations, inviting great expense and chaos to the state, or violate the Franciscans’ ability to exercise freely exercise the ministry so central to their lives.
The same scenario would apply to many other, much smaller contracts with faith-based organizations.
A federal executive order in 2014 and federal agency ruling in 2015 opened the door under the existing hospital agreements to include sexual orientation as a protected class. If anything, Edwards needs to issue an order to protect religious liberty against this encroachment.
Edwards, who promoted his Catholicism throughout his campaign, needs to scrap his promised order. There’s no compelling state interest in threatening existing agreements just to allow behavioral preferences to trump religious liberty.
Liberals like Edwards often prefer symbolic public policy gestures that at best do nothing or at worst ignore negative consequences. Resurrecting this executive order would be a prime example of this. Its potential implications raise questions about whose interests Edwards really wishes to serve — and whether he has genuine commitment toward religious liberty.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political of political science at LSU Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics (www.between-lines.com) and, when the Louisiana Legislature is in session, another about legislation (www.laleglog.com). Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.