Most readers of this column probably hadn’t heard of state Rep. Mike Johnson, of Bossier City, until recently, and for good reason. He’s not just in his first term as a legislator. He’s in his third month and, as of last week, participating in his very first session.
If it were up to his new peers in Baton Rouge, we probably wouldn’t be hearing much about Johnson now. Rather than take the routine step of referring his House Bill 707 on “religious freedom” to a committee early last week, the chamber’s leaders returned it to the calendar. That’s the procedural equivalent of taking Johnson aside and gently breaking the news that his idea’s a nonstarter.
Which is exactly what it would be, if not for a guy we know all too well by now.
While others read the bill and smelled an embarrassing distraction, Gov. Bobby Jindal saw opportunity. Here was something that the conservative primary voters he’s been working so hard to court would embrace. Here was a bill that the “far left,” as Jindal likes to put it, would detest and that would allow him to rush to the defense of the allegedly poor, besieged Christians who are being asked to treat their fellow citizens with dignity. And so the governor not only rescued the proposal from oblivion, he elevated it to one of his top priorities during a session when everyone else is focused on the state’s budget woes.
Johnson’s bill, as he explained it, would prevent the state from sanctioning companies that say they oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds. How that would pan out isn’t really clear, but in practical terms, it could exempt businesses that refuse to some services to gay couples — maybe providing floral arrangements or food for weddings — from laws that generally govern secular business transactions (not to be confused with religious functions like performing a ceremony, which already enjoy such protection). It would apply not to private thought but to public actions. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Johnson, a lawyer with a specialty in religious right causes, filed the bill just as the U.S. Supreme Court is getting ready to decide whether to overturn state bans, like Louisiana’s, on such marriages — and just as public and corporate opposition to different but related measures in Indiana and Arkansas prompted state officials there to furiously backpedal.
From all appearances, few Louisiana lawmakers want to replicate that experience, to fend off boycotts, to try to convince potential visitors and investors that the state is more tolerant, open-minded and welcoming than such a law would suggest. Senate President John Alario voiced concern over how it would affect Louisiana’s image, as did New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger. New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau President Stephen Perry issued a lengthy plea to put the bill aside.
“The adoption of certain types of overreaching, problematic and divisive legislation in Louisiana has the possibility of threatening our state’s third largest industry and creating economic losses pushing past a billion dollars a year and costing us tens of thousands of jobs,” he wrote. “Discrimination is the antithesis of hospitality. Hospitality invites. It does not divide.”
In an echo of the kind of pushback that Indiana faced, IBM weighed in, too, arguing that such a bill would protect discrimination based on same-sex marriage status and create a hostile work environment for current and prospective employees in Louisiana, and is “antithetical to our company’s values.”
As for the feeling inside the Legislature, the best measure was the reaction when Jindal mentioned the bill in his opening speech. Not one person applauded. Not one.
Yet there was Jindal pushing it as one of his top three priorities. And there he was throughout the week huddling with Johnson, accusing critics of being intolerant, insisting the bill does not have discriminatory intent and “does not give businesses or individuals the right to refuse service to gays and lesbians.”
Johnson chimed in, too. Lawmakers usually use points of personal privilege before the full chamber to introduce visitors and take care of other constituent business, but Johnson used his to claim his bill had been “grossly misrepresented.” He promised to amend it so it would alleviate concerns and “not harm anybody.” One major change, though, makes things even worse. Where he originally said he wanted to protect any point of view on marriage, he now plans to narrow it to focus on opposition to same-sex marriage. If that’s not taking sides, what is?
Still, Johnson said, he really wants everyone to “just get along.”
Too bad, because it’s not really his bill anymore. This is Jindal’s deal now, and he’s spoiling for a fight.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.