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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Louisiana "religious freedom" bill is likely to die in Legislature

Posted By on Tue, May 19, 2015 at 1:20 PM

click to enlarge Same-sex marriage supports rally in Jackson Square in September 2014. - ALEX WOODWARD
  • Same-sex marriage supports rally in Jackson Square in September 2014.

Update: Gov. Bobby Jindal plans to issue an executive order on "religious freedom."

A controversial bill that many opponents and legislators believe could provide legal protections for people who discriminate against same-sex couples and LGBT people has effectively been killed for the 2015 Legislative session. Members of the state's House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure voted 10-2 to return the bill to the calendar, deferring action for the remainder of the session.

House Bill 707's author, state Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, continues to argue that the bill doesn't discriminate against same-sex couples but protects people with religious beliefs (or other "moral convictions") that recognize marriage as only between a man and a woman. His legislation follows speculation that the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on same-sex marriage this summer, and the bill would provide a "shield" of protection in Louisiana when it becomes legal. Johnson told the committee that his bill is "designed to codify legal protections for those who have a moral objection" to same-sex marriage, and "does one simple thing: protect these people from discrimination from the state," like preventing businesses from losing state licenses, funding or tax exemptions because of their owners' beliefs.

"Every state is going to have to take up a bill like 707, and they’re going to have to do it now," he said. Johnson also said the bill is "an important opportunity" for the state to "model tolerance" and preserve "the right of conscience and the freedom of belief."

Committee chair and state Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, said a perception remains that the bill can be discriminatory. Johnson and state Rep. Raymond Garafalo were the two committee members who voted against deferring the bill.

Dozens of speakers spoke in support and opposition of the bill.

Gene Mills and Rick Edmonds of the Conservative Christian organization Louisiana Family Forum spoke in support of the measure. "We’re being asked to choose sides in a culture war," Mills warned. Among other supporters were Lloyd Hersch with the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; Raymond Harris, the mayor of Franklin, Louisiana; David Hankins, executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention; and Peter Fletcher, the headmaster of John Paul the Great Academy in Lafayette. Retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, who recently participate in the U.S. Senate race against Mary Landrieu and Bill Cassidy, said "the vicious attacks on Americans who hold religious beliefs … requires us to pass 707."

"If one group attacked now … it sets the stage to attack other groups," he said. The very groups fighting against it will be attacked in the future."

New Orleans-area business leaders voiced their opposition to the bill, including New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau president Stephen Perry, who voiced opposition to the measure last month. Michael Hecht, director of Greater New Orleans Inc., said if the bill passes, it could threaten business in the city and throughout the state and make it harder to recruit workers. "It can undermine the idea that our culture is celebrated for its diversity and its richness," he said. "The fallout from HB707 is a clear and present danger."

Robert Bray, area manager for Marriott hotels in New Orleans and president of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association, said many businesses told him if the bill passed, they "won't be doing business in New Orleans."

"It will cost New Orleans and Louisiana millions of dollars in tax revenue," he said, adding that many employees are counting on legislators to strike it down.

The measure also faced opposition from the Human Rights Campaign, Forum For Equality, Equality Louisiana, Acadiana Pride and statewide LGBT organizations. Mayor Mitch Landrieu and companies like IBM and Dow Chemical also oppose it.

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