The upcoming session of the Louisiana Legislature could very well bring the strongest LGBT agenda the state has ever seen. Bills have already been filed or will soon be introduced to usher in new anti-discrimination laws protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination, reversing the state's bans against sodomy, adding new protections for bullying in schools and erasing perceived biases in housing.
The real trick will be altering the usual outcomes, dished up by a conservative Legislature, bolstered by a Republican administration and tolerated by a right-leaning electorate. The issue is gaining intensity, but the politics remain unchanged.
What's happening at the Louisiana Capitol tracks national trends, where similar policy discussions have boiled over. In Arizona, lawmakers recently passed legislation permitting businesses to refuse service to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered citizens based solely on religious grounds. The response was so furious that several Arizona state senators who voted for the bill reversed themselves and declared they'd made a mistake. Ariz. Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the legislation Feb. 26.
Closer to home, the Shreveport City Council adopted a so-called "fairness ordinance" late last year banning discrimination in housing, employment and public services. It takes into account not only sexual orientation and gender identity, but also race, age, ancestry, politics, religion and other factors. New Orleans had already done the same, back in 1999, while Baton Rouge is in perpetual debate.
Now the Louisiana Legislature takes a turn, with its regular session convening March 10. While most special interests on the left are grouping together for a unified front, the question of how and where anti-discrimination laws should be applied is dividing some.
A no-stone-left-unturned approach is being taken by Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans. His House Bill 199 would add new discrimination protections under state law for four categories: age, disability, gender identity or expression and sexual orientation.
"This is really about basic human rights," Badon says. "People should not be discriminated [against] for anything."
Badon's legislation would insert anti-discrimination language into 62 areas of law covering school admissions, credit lines, attending race tracks, hate crime definitions, parade applications, gubernatorial appointments, gambling in casinos, licensing counselors, brain injury facilities and more.
But the four categories he's seeking to protect are not applied equally to each area of law. For instance, when it comes to peace officer training and standards, protections are only added under his bill for gender identity or expression, since age, disability and sexual orientation are already part of existing anti-discrimination laws for that area.
Badon's legislation is supported by the New Orleans-based Forum for Equality, whose leadership makes no apologies about the vast legal umbrella the bill opens. "We wanted to make sure all people in Louisiana were protected. We wanted to show we're all interconnected," says Forum Executive Director SarahJane Brady.
That far-reaching application is exactly why another group, Equality Louisiana, which has a statewide focus, is instead supporting another bill with a narrower focus. Coalition manager Bruce Parker says Equality Louisiana is instead expecting a counter proposal to be co-sponsored by Reps. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, and Karen St. Germain, D-Plaquemine.
While no legislation had been made public by deadline, Parker says the bill would address employment in both the public and private sectors in a manner that's simpler than Badon's measure.
"I'm concerned that an omnibus bill approach doesn't have a chance of passing," Parker says. "It might have to go through all kinds of different committees. Education for the school stuff, commerce for the credit provisions and so on. I cannot imagine what a path to victory for that would even look like."
Whichever bill does manage to pass, if either passes, both Brady and Parker say they'll eventually support any legislation that helps the LGBT community.
Moving any anti-discrimination bill through the Louisiana Legislature is a tall order, particularly if the measure protects LGBTs. Badon failed to convince lawmakers last year to protect state workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation as well as gender identity or expression. He barely moved that bill, gathering just three votes from the House and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Representatives from the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), a conservative faith-based group, argued against Badon's proposal last year, saying race and gender are not things individuals can choose, but they can avoid a "gay lifestyle." Pastor Dale Hoffpauir of Lafayette, the LFF's chief operating officer, says LFF will definitely be back at the table this year, even if the anti-discrimination bills differ slightly from past years. "This is something we see every year and we have the same concerns as always," Hoffpauir says.
The issue has a history. Former Govs. Edwin Edwards and Kathleen Blanco put in effect executive orders to protect state employees against discrimination, but Gov. Bobby Jindal has done nothing of the sort, leaving it to the Legislature to act instead. In doing so, Jindal has allowed the matter to revert to what's on the books now, which is a ban on discriminating against state workers based only on color, disability, genetic information, national origin, race, religion and gender.
Since 2011, New Orleans Democrats have carried the banner, with anti-discrimination bills being filed by Rep. Helena Moreno and Sens. J.P. Morrell and Ed Murray. Like Badon, all struck out in their own attempts. That's why St. Germain's entry into the fray — she being among the first from outside the New Orleans area to pick up on the issue — is considered a victory unto itself by supporters.
This time, Brady and Parker say public opinion is more on their side than ever before. Supporters point to a survey conducted last year by LSU's Public Policy Research Lab, which found that 89 percent of respondents believed employers, other than churches and religious organizations, should not be able to fire employees because they are gay or transgender. The same percentage said schools should protect gay and transgender students from bullying and harassment. The poll, which had a sample size of 1,280 residents, was sponsored by three left-leaning groups: the Capital City Alliance, Equality Louisiana and Louisiana Progress.
Other related bills are expected for the session as well, including one from Rep. Jared Brossett, D-New Orleans, that would tackle housing discrimination issues. Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, may offer similar legislation that not only would target the LGBT community, but also felons' rights in regard to housing. Equality Louisiana is seeking an author for the proposal, but no one has come forward as a sponsor as of press time.
Smith, in her second of many showings on the topic, is also expected to carry anti-bullying bills alongside Morrell.
But in what is, so far, the most high-profile proposal introduced, Smith is sponsoring House Bill 12, which would reverse the state's anti-sodomy laws. While it would still apply the crime-against-nature standard to sex with animals, the proposed legislation would prohibit consensual anal and oral sex between people from being considered a part of the legal definition of "crime against nature."
This proposal appears, at least on the surface, to have some steam behind it, with law enforcement officials recognizing that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled such laws unenforceable and unconstitutional. In East Baton Rouge Parish, Sheriff Sid Gautreaux III has apologized for sodomy-related arrests his department made in recent years — roughly a dozen between 2011 and 2013. In those cases, District Attorney Hillar Moore decided against prosecution, and Gautreaux now supports Smith's legislation.
Again, the LFF will be among the naysayers; its leadership predicts Smith's legislation will sink.
Parker admits the LFF could be right — at least on the fate of the anti-sodomy bill. Support from law enforcement officials is one thing, but the reality of dealing with a conservative Legislature is another. "In no way does that support mean it's going to pass," Parker says.
He also realizes the Legislature is only one piece of the puzzle. Jindal, who has his sights set on the national stage and big-time conservative politics, holds the veto pen, which can easily cut through all of the momentum supporters might think they have.
"Even if we get something through the House and Senate, Gov. Jindal is probably going to veto it," Parker says. "So it's really about getting people to talk about these issues and get used to them being debated. We're trying to move the consideration down the field, and that's already happening."