Louisiana looks to join “religious freedom” debate

By : Wire Report
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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Even before the opening of Louisiana’s legislative session, a bill has thrust the state into the national debate over religious objections laws.

Opponents of the laws, which have drawn national headlines in Indiana and Arkansas, say they allow for businesses and others to discriminate against gays and lesbians on moral and religious grounds. But proponents say the laws protect religious-freedom rights, guarding individuals and businesses from heavy-handed state action.

In Louisiana, with the Legislature’s session set to open April 13, exactly what the Marriage and Conscience Act would allow is in dispute. Already, it is pitting socially conservative supporters against LGBT and business groups who call the bill exclusionary of same-sex couples.

As written, the legislation would ban the state from denying business licenses, benefits or tax deductions because of any actions a person takes “in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction” about marriage. Affected businesses could include wedding planners, photographers and bakers who object to working with gay couples but fear state retribution.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion about it, but I think the law speaks for itself,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Mike Johnson of Bossier City, a lawyer who has represented socially-conservative causes in court. “All this bill will do is say … the state can’t come in, withholding licenses or certification or some other tax benefit.”

His bill already has a strong supporter in Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican courting evangelical Christians for a possible presidential bid.

But it faces opposition from powerful Senate President John Alario, also a Republican. And some legal experts say the bill will sanction discrimination.

“It gives individuals complete legal immunity to act according to their religious and moral conscience with respect to their views on marriage,” said Keith Werhan, a Tulane University constitutional law expert. “In doing that, it does license discrimination.”

If the bill becomes law, for example, landlords could invoke it to deny rental applications to married gay couples and companies could cite it to fire employees in same-sex marriages, Werhan said.

Same-sex marriage is banned under the Louisiana Constitution, and state lawmakers have rejected efforts to enact a law barring discrimination of LGBT people. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on same-sex marriage April 28 and could issue a ruling that allows same sex-marriage across the U.S.

Louisiana already has religious liberty protections, but Johnson said a new law exclusively addressing same-sex marriage is needed because First Amendment protections of religion have been diluted by the courts.

But Charles Haynes, executive director of the Religious Freedom Center in Washington, said the proposal in Louisiana “takes the fight from Arkansas and Indiana and makes it worse.”

Since the Louisiana proposal was filed, LGBT advocacy organizations have lined up in opposition. State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, chairwoman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, also blasted the bill, saying in a statement that it “threatens serious financial harm to one of Louisiana’s largest industries, tourism.”

Perhaps the most significant opposition comes from Senate President Alario. He said he doesn’t support the measure in its original form and doesn’t know whether there’s a way to fix it.

“If it smells any bit of discrimination or racism, I think you’ll find the Legislature very reluctant to move that forward,” Alario said.

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