Gay people, you have a new champion in the Louisiana House of Representatives.
Meet Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, who has filed a bill that he says will protect you if, one day, “an overzealous, uber-conservative governor” should want to punish you for approving of same-sex marriage.
“Wait,” you are saying. “I’ve heard of this Johnson. He is an attorney with Freedom Guard and worked for the Alliance Defense Fund. He has always been an implacable foe of gay rights. What makes you think he has changed his mind?”
Well, listen to what he says about the bill he filed. He evidently spends more time talking to gay people than you might think, so he knows how much they worry about overbearing government officials. Gay groups forever fret, he tells us, that the state is “gonna come after our advocacy organizations and yank our nonprofit status.” Everyone can relax, Johnson says, brandishing his bill. “What this does is it precludes that from ever happening.”
Well, of course, it was never going to. No governor could revoke a nonprofit’s accreditation for exercising its free speech rights in favor of gay marriage even when it remains illegal in Louisiana. If, as seems likely, the U.S. Supreme Court throws out Louisiana’s ban, a governor would have to be uber-nuts to try imposing punishment for espousing the principle of equal protection.
Johnson’s bill forbids state government to penalize citizens for their views on gay marriage, but it could hardly be more obvious that its intended beneficiaries are dyed-in-the-wool opponents. The bill uses an illusory threat to “religious liberty” as a pretext.
The bill in its original form would have let the state refuse to certify a benefits plan as eligible for IRS relief if the boss excluded employees who didn’t agree with him on gay marriage. According to the wacky world view of the Christian right, forbidding the boss to discriminate against employees would constitute discrimination against him.
But opponents squawked so much about that section of the bill that Johnson took it out. His bill still imposes a blanket prohibition on any state action designed to “discriminate against or disadvantage” anyone on account of views on gay marriage. It spells out that the state, for instance, cannot revoke a tax exemption on that account, although chances of that happening seem remote.
The notion that the right to practice religion in this country is under threat, practically a truism in conservative circles, is nonsense.
As we have seen in Indiana and Arkansas, proponents of what purports to be religious-freedom legislation will claim that they are against discrimination. It is one of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s favorite lines, but is, to use a polite word for it, disingenuous. If discrimination is not the point, what is? These laws confuse religious freedom with a right to exemption from the rules that apply in the secular arena.
Johnson’s bill, now that it has been amended, however, seems unlikely to have any practical effect beyond reaffirming an abhorrence of gay marriage.
Although Johnson claims to perceive a threat that the state might seek to punish people for their views, whether they are for or against, it is obvious that no law is required to protect advocates of straight marriage, for no religion abominates it. This bill was evidently filed in anticipation that the Supreme Court will invalidate state laws that ban gay marriage. If that happens, the Marriage and Conscience Act won’t make much difference anyway.
Nobody’s religious liberties are at stake in Louisiana. They are more than adequately protected not only by state and federal constitutions, but through statutory protection of an individual right to act according to “sincerely held” beliefs.
If gay marriage does become legal in Louisiana, anyone whose convictions make it abhorrent can hew to that principle in private life without demanding that public policy reflect it. It is surely analogous to laws against racism in housing and employment, which exist in perfect harmony with the First Amendment right to free association. You can join a club that bans blacks and Jews, but you’ll get hauled into court if you try discrimination in public accommodations.
Johnson’s bill stresses that marriage in Louisiana can only mean the “union of one man and one woman.” If you don’t agree, fear not, for Johnson says he is out to protect your rights. You can believe that if you only have faith.
James Gill’s email address is email@example.com.