The so-called Pastor Protection Act, legislation aimed at shielding religious leaders from legal retribution for refusing to conduct gay marriages, died in the Louisiana Legislature on Tuesday after a Senate committee voted it down.
But opponents of the measure say the failure of the bill in no way means that clergy members will now be forced to officiate same-sex marriages, rather they believe the protections already exist and the measure was unnecessary. What’s worse, they said, was the bill sent a message of disapproval about the state’s position on same-sex marriage.
Bossier City Rep. Mike Johnson, a Republican, said after the committee action that he did not see a path forward for the legislation this session.
Throughout the process, Johnson adamantly denied the measure was intended to give cover to anyone other than religious leaders who would be in a position to conduct weddings. He maintained that it could not be used to allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT people in other areas and was not intended to be a statement about intolerance toward LGBT people.
He said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year to legalize same-sex marriage means states are being forced to create their own protections for clergy who object to conducting ceremonies, otherwise their tax-exempt statuses could potentially be jeopardized.
“As sexual liberty is elevated, we don’t want religious liberty to take a back seat,” he said.
However, many legislators, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, called the measure redundant. They said religious freedom is already protected at the federal level and restated at the state level with the passage of the Louisiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2010.
House Bill 597 last month won easy approval from the Louisiana House. But it faced tough opposition and questioning on Tuesday in Senate Judiciary B, primarily led by two New Orleans Democrats, Sens. JP Morrell and Karen Carter Peterson. The bill was ultimately rejected 3-2.
“You have the Religious Freedom Act, which already protects this broadly,” said Morrell, calling it “overkill.” “We’ve got a homeowner afraid of a robber. You’ve armed him with a knife and a gun, and now we’re going to give him a bazooka.”
But the Rev. Lewis Richardson, of Baton Rouge’s Woodlawn Baptist Church, said the state frequently approves legislation that could be considered duplicative as a means of clarifying its position on federal issues. For example, he noted the state has several laws to specify its position on gun rights protected by the Second Amendment.
“We’re asking for the same thing through this piece of legislation — that you clearly articulate what this state means, and what this state understands the First Amendment to mean and to be as it relates to pastors, priests, rabbis and houses of worship,” Richardson said.
On the opposing side, people raised concerns about the message it sent both to businesses and tourists who are more progressively minded.
Stephen Perry, of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, testified that millions of dollars are on the line, pointing to states like Georgia, North Carolina and Mississippi, which have lost business deals citing anti-LGBT legislation.
He said legislators should be concerned about “protection of the brand of Louisiana.”
“Louisiana’s brand is seen as more progressive than the other southern states,” Perry said.
Matthew Patterson, of Equality Louisiana, said regardless of the legal implications of the bill, it sends a message of disapproval toward LGBT people.
“This is an expression of disapproval on the books,” he said. “It’s Louisiana saying, ‘We understand you are here, but we don’t like you.’ ”
Johnson, who is running for Congress, sponsored a bill last year called the “Marriage and Conscience Act,” which sought to prevent the state from penalizing businesses who, based on their religious beliefs, denied services to gay customers.
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