A bill that has stirred controversy in Louisiana and reinvigorated debate over marriage and religion will go before lawmakers this week for its first vote. Proponents say the so-called religious freedom bill, which has the backing of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, would protect business owners who oppose same-sex marriage from being punished for their views. However, opponents argue that the bill would make it easier for private businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. A hearing is expected Tuesday and will be held in the House Civil Law and Procedure committee, according to the Daily Comet.
It was unclear until recently whether the bill would get a hearing at all, given the immediate backlash it received from lawmakers, business owners, and people in the tourism and film industries who fear the bill could alienate out-of-staters. Many in Louisiana are concerned the bill could spark a backlash against the state similar to what occurred this year in Arkansas and Indiana.
New Orleans’ Mayor Mitch Landrieu came out against the bill shortly after it was submitted in April, saying that “discrimination in any form should not be tolerated.” New Orleans and other cities have passed laws that bar business owners from refusing to serve gay customers or hire gay employees, however there are no statewide protections for people based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Louisiana’s state constitution defines marriage as between one man and one woman, which means same-sex couples cannot marry in Louisiana, nor will the state recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states where gay marriage has been legalized.
Experts say it’s unlikely House Bill 707, the “Marriage and Conscience Act,” will make it through both the House and the Senate before the legislative session ends in three weeks. Others say the bill would likely be amended before it ever becomes law, however many opponents simply want it to go away. “I don’t know if anything is good enough, at this point, regardless of the substance of what he proposes,” Rep. Neil Abramson, a Democrat, told the Advocate, referring to the bill’s sponsor Rep. Mike Johnson, who said he would clarify some of the language in the bill so that it couldn’t be used to discriminate.
Jindal has indicated that he will likely run for president in 2016. The Republican governor on Monday announced he’d be forming a campaign exploratory committee, which helps determine whether a potential candidate should pursue elected office, the Associated Press reported. His support for Louisiana’s religious freedom bill was seen as a way to look strong to the GOP's conservative voter base. At the same time, Jindal has said he’s more focused on fixing the state’s billion-dollar budget deficit than on defending the bill.
In Arkansas and Indiana, criticism of proposed religious freedom laws prompted lawmakers to amend their own bills to prohibit business owners from using the laws to discriminate.