"Religious freedom" bill opponents file anti-discrimination bill and warn collateral damage in New Orleans

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A rally in Jackson Square on Sept. 3, 2014 supported same-sex couples fighting against Louisiana law banning same-sex marriages. - ALEX WOODWARD
  • ALEX WOODWARD
  • A rally in Jackson Square on Sept. 3, 2014 supported same-sex couples fighting against Louisiana law banning same-sex marriages.

There are always a few bills or ideas floating around Baton Rouge that ignite a firestorm of debate before legislature convenes. This year is no exception. State Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, filed the Marriage and Conscience Act, even after controversial legislation in Arkansas and Indiana opened the floor for "religious freedom" and same-sex discrimination.

Johnson's measure 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 this week, but opponents believe the bill 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 soon weigh in on same-sex marriage — this bill seemingly pre-empts any decision by the courts by protecting same-sex marriage opponents with its shield of "religious freedom."

Gov. Bobby Jindal previewed his support for the measure during his stop on Meet the Press on April 5 — and Jindal spokesperson Shannon Bates Dirmann said Johnson's bill is "common sense."

Forum For Equality, meanwhile, has spearheaded the Freedom Louisiana coalition to combat the legislation. The coalition has backed a measure from 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.

In a statement, Forum for Equality Louisiana director SarahJane Brady said that "if Rep. Johnson has a conscience, he will immediately pull this dangerous bill and spare Louisianans the embarrassment it heaps upon us all."

"Instead of marginalizing our LGBT citizens, the legislator should help provide equal rights and protections by supporting Forum for Equality’s nondiscrimination bill this session," she said.

New Orleans' tourism industry also has stepped up against Johnson's measure. Stephen Perry with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOCVB) urged Johnson to table the issue, which he says could have unintended consequences for the city's service industry:
Refusing goods and services to anyone, or discriminating against others under the cloak of religious freedom tramples on these inalienable rights. It could well open a Pandora’s Box of exceptions that would comprise a slippery slope to a divided society. ...

We feel strongly that current law in Louisiana provides overwhelming and powerful protections of religious freedom. We urge that further debate and new legislation be tabled for now because of the huge and needless damage this could inflict on our brand and to an industry and destination city that each have a world-wide reputation as being welcoming, diverse, inclusive and exceptionally tolerant. 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. ...

Discrimination is the antithesis of hospitality. Hospitality invites. It does not divide. Our huge industry and our economy depend on it. Therefore, our industry and our city remain committed to making every visitor and citizen alike feel welcome and included in every way and we urge our legislature to table all potentially divisive debates on these religious freedom matters and focus on the budgetary, higher education, healthcare and other pressing crises of our day.
The 2015 legislative session begins Monday, April 13. 


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