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New Orleans Mayor Landrieu and city tourism officials are against the ‘religious freedom’ bill proposed by state Rep. Mike Johnson 

  As the state debates "religious freedom" and same-sex discrimination with state Rep. Mike Johnson's proposed Marriage and Conscience Act, New Orleans officials are standing firm, saying the Bossier City Republican's measure is a "slippery slope to a divided society."

  In the wake of controversial legislation in Arkansas and Indiana, Johnson's bill says "protecting religious freedom from government intrusion is a governmental interest of the highest order," and the state will "not take any adverse action" against anyone acting "in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction about the institution of marriage."

  Johnson removed a chunk of controversial language from the bill last week, but opponents believe the bill still could be interpreted to prevent the state from penalizing businesses for what amounts to discrimination for denying employee benefits or service to same-sex couples. The U.S. Supreme Court and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals are expected to weigh in on same-sex marriage soon. Johnson's bill seemingly pre-empts any decision by the courts by protecting foes of same-sex marriage with its shield of "religious freedom." Gov. Bobby Jindal supports the measure.

  Forum For Equality, meanwhile, has spearheaded the Freedom Louisiana coalition to combat the legislation. The coalition has backed a measure by state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, dubbed the Louisiana Nondiscrimination Act, which adds "sexual orientation" and "gender identity or expression" to specific categories of protection from discrimination in employment, housing and other areas.

  "New Orleans has always been an accepting, inviting city that thrives on its diversity," said Mayor Mitch Landrieu in a statement to Gambit. "Discrimination in any form should not be tolerated, and New Orleans has passed its own laws to reflect that principle."

  New Orleans' tourism industry also has stepped up against Johnson's measure. Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOCVB), urged Johnson to table the bill. Perry says the measure could have unintended consequences for the city's service industry. "Legislation that could be construed or misconstrued to invite discrimination and intolerance is bad for our economy, our business environment, our citizens and workers, and our very soul," Perry wrote.

  In 1999, the New Orleans City Council passed a sweeping ordinance barring discrimination in business, housing and public accommodations based on a variety of characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender identification. While the state constitution prohibits both same-sex marriage and civil unions, the city of New Orleans has maintained a domestic partnership registry since 1993 and has offered insurance benefits to same-sex partners of city employees since 1997.

  Last year, Landrieu became the first mayor of a major Louisiana city to endorse same-sex marriage. A survey published by Louisiana State University earlier this week found more than 58 percent of residents in the New Orleans metropolitan area in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.

  This year's legislative session begins Monday, April 13.


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