Louisiana's "Pastor Protection Act" gets committee support

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A crowd at Jackson Square in 2015 rallying in support of the U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriages. - ALEX WOODWARD
  • ALEX WOODWARD
  • A crowd at Jackson Square in 2015 rallying in support of the U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriages.

After failing to get support for his 2015 "Marriage and Conscience Act" as a last line of defense from the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision on gay marriage, state Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, got committee support for his House Bill 597, aka the "Pastor Protection Act."

Johnson brought his measure to today's House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure, where it passed 7-3. Opponents argue the measure could open the door for all kinds of anti-LGBT discrimination as the measure not only protects clergy but employees of any "religious organization" from having to provide "services" to anyone they believe "violate[s] a sincerely held religious belief." Johnson says it's intended only to apply to people performing same-sex marriages.

The measure "provides that a religious organization, an individual employee of a religious organization or a clergy or minister may not be required to solemnize or provide services, accommodations, facilities, goods, or privileges for a purpose related to the solemnization, formation, or celebration of any marriage if doing so would cause the organization to violate a sincerely held religious belief," and that any refusal "shall not serve as the basis for a civil, criminal, or other punitive action by the state or a political subdivision."

The bill has the support of the Louisiana Family Forum's Gene Mills, who said the measure would protect pastors from any future litigation — but proponents couldn't point to any particular circumstance warranting legislative protection, nor any challenges to pastors who refused those services to LGBT people. Opponents argued the measure not only tries to solve a problem that doesn't exist, it opens the door for discrimination against LGBT people beyond the altar — opponents argue the language in the measure extending broadly to "religious organizations" could equip church-affiliated companies and groups with a legislatively backed discrimination defense. Matthew Patterson, Managing Director of Equality Louisiana, and Dylan Waguespack, Board Member of Louisiana Trans Advocates, wrote in a statement that "our legislators made the choice to take our state a step backward."

"They’ve made it clear that they prioritize discrimination over fairness and economic stability," the statement reads. "[The bill] opens the door for employers to deny benefits to workers, doctors to refuse treatment to patients, shelters to turn away homeless LGBT people, and much more, with merely a religious belief as justification."
The measure comes from the Republican congressman who last year floated a "Marriage and Conscience Act" to preempt the SCOTUS decision. Within hours after his measure failed, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an executive order to "prohibit the state from denying or revoking a tax exemption, tax deduction, contract, cooperative agreement, loan, professional license, certification, accreditation, or employment on the basis the person acts in accordance with a religious belief that marriage is between one man and one woman."

So-called "Pastor Protection Acts" were filed in other states in the wake of the SCOTUS decision despite state and federal laws already affording clergy members discretion over who they marry. Johnson says his measure is intended to shield pastors from having to perform same-sex marriages, and proponents argue it adds another layer of protection. Johnson called it a "harmless" bill "defending religious liberty."

It heads to the full House for debate.


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