After weeks of pleas and outright threats that corporate titans such as the NFL, Apple and Disney would take their business elsewhere, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal did the right thing Monday and said he’d veto a so-called religious liberty bill that would have effectively allowed employment and other types of discrimination against gay people.
Deal, a two-term Republican, said the bill didn’t reflect Georgia’s status as a place full of “warm, friendly and loving people.” What he didn’t need to say was that his state is also a place that wants, and needs, to attract major events and investment, and that doing so requires a certain level of openness to all sorts of people.
Sound like any place we know?
Like many conservative states, Louisiana also has been grappling with such issues for several years now, particularly when it comes to the rapidly spreading acceptance of same-sex relationships.
The state’s record, is, well, mixed. Unlike the Georgia Legislature, Louisiana’s lawmakers last year wisely tabled a bill that would have given businesses the right to refuse service to same-sex couples based on the owners’ religious beliefs. It nixed the effort by state Rep. Mike Johnson amid similar concerns by tourism and business interests, despite then-Gov. Bobby Jindal’s embrace of the bill as he prepared to launch his doomed presidential bid.
This year, Johnson’s back with another version of the bill, but as proposed, it’s much more narrowly focused, so it hasn’t generated the same strong opposition. Advocates of equality will have to keep a close eye on it as moves through the process; one promising development is that Jindal’s successor, Gov. John Bel Edwards, opposed last year’s bill and is unlikely to sign something along the same lines.
But there’s more the Legislature could do to signal a culture of acceptance, including a couple of measures that should be totally painless. On that front, the state continues to fall short. Take a law that not only criminalizes sodomy but likens it to bestiality, and that remains on the books even though the U.S. Supreme Court long ago declared such restrictions on consensual private behavior unconstitutional.
It would be easy enough to simply repeal the law. Yet state Rep. Pat Smith’s effort to do just that two years ago went nowhere, despite chilling reports that the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office had taken to arresting people and charging them under the measure. The District Attorney’s Office rejected these charges, but the fact that people were carted off to jail and publicly humiliated in the first place was more than bad enough.
Yet this year, despite a general drive to clean up the state’s books and get rid of unenforceable laws, Smith says she’s focusing her attention elsewhere, and none of her colleagues has yet filed a bill to try again.
Nor is anyone in the Legislature taking on another measure that’s now moot: Louisiana’s ban on the recognition of same-sex marriage. The prohibition remains in the state constitution and related law, even though the U.S. Supreme Court last year declared such marriages legal everywhere.
It’s not just lack of interest speaking. Louisiana may have drawn national criticism for refusing to overturn the sodomy ban, but closer to home, powerful lobbyists from the Louisiana Family Forum and other religious conservative groups have pushed lawmakers to keep things as they are. They promise to do so again should new challenges arise during the current legislative session.
“History has proven that ‘unenforceable’ doesn’t mean ‘useless,’ ” the Family Forum’s Gene Mills told The Advocate. Mills seems to be clinging to a pipe dream that both the high court and the arc of history will somehow reverse themselves. “They’re called opinions because that’s all they really are. The Supreme Court has reversed itself on more than 250 occasions.”
Frankly, even without the threat of being targeted, many Louisiana lawmakers seem reluctant to step up and take the lead on measures that promote fairness and acceptance toward gay people. It was no accident that opponents killed last year’s religious freedom bill by basically sidelining it, a maneuver that did not require legislators to take a public no vote.
I’m guessing the same goes for a proposal to remove the unconstitutional anti-gay measures from the law books. Doing so should be the easiest vote imaginable.
That somehow it’s still not says an awful lot how far Louisiana’s government has to go to join the modern, ever-more-tolerant world.