When Gov. John Bel Edwards says that "discrimination is not a Louisiana value," he's not making a legal argument.
So it's possible to contend that this high-minded, well-intentioned sentiment doesn't belong in the discussion over whether Edwards' executive order, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in state hiring and contracting, is proper.
Attorney General Jeff Landry defends his all-out legal crusade to block Gov. John Bel Edward…
That's the gist of what Attorney General Jeff Landry, Edwards' frequent nemesis and the man who's trying to get the courts to overrule the governor, is arguing, anyway. Landry likes to paint the long-running conflict as strictly about separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches, and gubernatorial overreach.
"We do not live under a king in Louisiana; we have a governor," Landry crowed last week after the relevant section of a district-level ruling invalidating the executive order was upheld on appeal. Edwards has not yet said whether he'll take the issue to the state Supreme Court.
Yet if that's a fair issue to debate, a more important one underlies Edwards' statement of principle. Why did Landry, a self-appointed general in the state's culture wars, choose to pick this fight in the first place?
Edwards' executive order, which bans discrimination in hiring for the executive branch and in private companies that do work for the state, was nothing new or novel. Fellow Democratic governors Edwin Edwards and Kathleen Blanco issued similar orders and conducted their business accordingly, without setting off any sort of crisis. John Bel Edwards added protections for transgender people, but that's more an update in line with the times than a substantive change.
So Landry could have just left things alone. Instead, he chose to use his public office to force a legal showdown.
Personally, I'm not impressed with the reasoning out of the two courts. Landry claims, and they agreed, that the will of the Legislature is that such protections cannot be granted by the executive branch because lawmakers have not recognized lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as a protected group.
But nor have they gone on record to prohibit such recognition. And while there aren't enough courageous politicians in the Legislature carry the banner, nor does there seem to be any groundswell to take a public stance for the other side.
An appellate court panel found Wednesday that Gov. John Bel Edwards went too far when trying…
In fact, when related issues come up, they tend to get pushed aside. That's what happened when then brand-new representative and now-U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson introduced a "religious freedom" bill a few years back to protect private businesses that refuse to serve gay couples. Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was getting ready to run as a hard-line conservative for the GOP presidential nomination, backed the effort, but Johnson's elders quickly sidelined the bill without forcing a vote.
The upshot is that the Legislature has in effect left the administration's options open.
This is nothing unusual, and it's one reason executive orders are popular, not just in Baton Rouge but in Washington, where both Barack Obama and Donald Trump have used them more aggressively than Edwards has.
And that's why they generally stand unless someone decides to make an issue of them. Which brings us back to Landry.
Since he was elected two years ago, the ambitious attorney general has been using his office to push the sort of red-meat socially conservative causes that fuel his most committed backers, and that could help him if he pursues a rumored run against Edwards for governor or perhaps a future U.S. Senate seat.
In challenging the executive order yet avoiding discussing its substance, he's trying to have it both ways. His dry, legalistic justification seems designed to give comfort to those who don't like the lawsuit's mean-spirited intent, while the effort itself is bound to please those who do.
That's what makes Edwards' oft-repeated line about discrimination not being a Louisiana value an important part of the discussion.
It's because Landry's actions push the deeply unsettling idea that it is.