It’s not so hard to look like you’re taking a big step forward when everyone around you is taking one step back.
And so Gov. John Bel Edwards won perhaps more praise last week than he might have otherwise for issuing an anti-discrimination executive order, amid a flood of anti-gay legislation bubbling up in other Southern states.
As policy, Edwards’ order forbidding discrimination by state government and nonreligious state contractors based on sexual orientation and gender identity is something of a return to past form. Former Democratic Govs. Kathleen Blanco and Edwin Edwards signed similar directives in their day, although John Bel Edwards’ order is the first to include transgender people, a powerful addition that draws a sharp contrast with North Carolina’s punitive new law dictating which bathrooms they are allowed to use.
As a signal, though, Edwards’ declaration that “discrimination is not a Louisiana value” and his willingness to back it up speak awfully loudly, particularly in the current political climate.
By issuing the order, Edwards pointedly pivoted from both former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s official stance and GOP presidential campaign-inspired rhetoric. Jindal not only refused to renew Blanco’s order when he took office but also issued his own last year preventing the state from taking action against private businesses that refused to serve same-sex couples. Edwards rescinded that order as well.
And in his public statements, Jindal rushed to the defense of the disapproving, from bakers who didn’t want to provide cakes for newly legal same-sex weddings to “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson, who likened homosexuality to adultery, prostitution and bestiality. But he never managed to muster a word of sympathy for those being so harshly judged.
Edwards’ order also serves as a great big invitation to the individuals and business that are now looking at nearby states in a newly harsh light.
After North Carolina Pat McCrory signed a fast-track, far-reaching bill limiting not only bathroom access but also broader anti-discrimination efforts, PayPal axed its plans to expand there, and rocker Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert.
Georgia narrowly averted such a fate when Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a bill to allow businesses to refuse service and fire people based on their owners’ religious beliefs; the veto came after some of the country’s most recognizable corporations threatened to pull their business. Mississippi, where Gov. Phil Bryant signed such a bill, is facing similar blowback, and Tennessee might as well, if Gov. Bill Haslam decides to sign a bill allowing mental health professionals to refuse treatment to certain patients based on their own religious beliefs.
None of this makes Louisiana a progressive paradise. There’s still no statewide anti-discrimination law, and proponents have failed to pass one in Baton Rouge even though New Orleans and Shreveport have adopted such measures.
An unconstitutional and unenforceable law outlawing sodomy remains on the books, and has been used to justify arrests of gay men as recently as a couple of years ago. Apparently, many lawmakers just don’t want to go on record a opposing a such a ban.
Nor did they want to vote against last-year’s Jindal-backed bill, authored by state Rep. Mike Johnson, a Bossier Republican and now candidate for Congress, aimed at achieving the same goal as the executive order he ultimately issued. Still, the Legislature deserves credit for sidelining the measure rather than passing it.
Johnson’s back this year with a narrower bill dubbed the “Pastor Protection Act,” which aims to protect clergy members from being forced to participate in same-sex weddings. Edwards, who says such protection already exists, has said he’d sign the bill in its current form — although it too has attracted criticism for covering groups “supervised or controlled by” religious organizations.
Still, the state’s on the right track these days, thanks largely to the governor’s embrace of tolerance. And at least some credit goes to Mississippi and North Carolina as well; they’ve managed to make Louisiana look awfully good in comparison.