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Commentary: The Louisiana House shelves “religious freedom” bill; now members should continue to do the right thing and pass equal pay bill

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Last week, the Louisiana House of Representatives showed bipartisan good sense on one of the big social issues of the session — the so-called "Marriage & Conscience Act." The proposed law was widely (and rightly) seen as an attempt to enshrine the right to discriminate against LGBT citizens under the guise of "religious freedom." A House committee killed the measure for this year, but Gov. Bobby Jindal shamelessly pandered to religious conservatives by signing an executive order that attempts to circumvent the Legislature's authority to make public policy.

  On another front, the House will soon take up another important issue — gender pay equity. Louisiana is one of the worst states (some studies show us the worst) when it comes to the wage gap between men and women. A study earlier this year by the Institute for Women's Policy Research found Louisiana women earn 66.7 cents on the dollar compared to men. For years, Louisiana lawmakers have considered legislation to address this inequity, but inevitably the state's business lobby shot it down, claiming it would spawn vexatious litigation. That's a smokescreen. Equal pay laws have not jammed the gears of industry in the 39 states where they already exist.

  This year, state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, convinced the Senate to pass his Senate Bill 219, which would ensure equal pay for the same job in private businesses and local government. (Louisiana's existing equal pay law applies only to state government.) Murray's bill will be heard soon in the House Labor & Industrial Relations Committee, which torpedoed two similar bills last month. We hope the committee reverses course this time.

  Meanwhile, House Bill 707 — the so-called "religious freedom" bill that drew extensive fire locally and nationally — went down in flames May 19 in the House Civil Law Committee by a vote of 10-2. Tourism and business leaders decried the measure, and letters of opposition were sent from corporate giants IBM and Dow Chemical as well as dozens of smaller Louisiana companies.

  The bill's author, state Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, admitted under questioning from state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, that the bill would allow a teacher to refuse to meet with the same-sex parents of a student, or a doctor to refuse to treat an LGBT patient. That was enough to convince a bipartisan group of state representatives to kill the measure.

  Enter Gov. Bobby Jindal, who had claimed HB 707 was vital to religious freedom but was absent when it was being debated in committee. Instead, he was running TV commercials about "religious freedom" in Iowa — having announced a day earlier his "exploratory committee" for an expected presidential bid next year. Within hours of the bill's demise, Jindal's office announced and signed an executive order that would "accomplish the intent of HB 707 to prevent the state from discriminating against persons or entities with deeply held religious beliefs that marriage is between one man and one woman."   

  The executive order has far more political than legal effect — another example of Jindal's sound and fury signifying nothing. In contrast to the governor's grandstanding, the House did the right thing by killing Johnson's bill. We hope the House does the right thing in the case of equal pay as well and passes Murray's bill.


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