Some Louisiana religious leaders are taking a stand against a bill that would purportedly protect business owners from being penalized for their views on gay marriage, but which critics say is an anti-gay law disguised as religious liberty. Supporters of the Marriage and Conscience Act say it’s unlike the recent bills that sparked controversy in Arkansas and Indiana. Opponents say it would open the door to discrimination against same-sex couples should gay marriage become legal in Louisiana, which it will if the U.S. Supreme Court declares it a federal right.
House Bill 707 was introduced by Republican state Rep. Mike Johnson earlier this month and is waiting to go to committee for consideration. About 50 Louisiana religious leaders signed a statement from Equality Louisiana, a gay rights group, and Louisiana Progress Action, a liberal policy research group. They argue that state law already protects religious liberty and that the proposed law would allow people to claim religious beliefs as a shield for denying services to gays and lesbians.
“I speak today as a person of the Christian faith in opposition to House Bill 707,” Chris Broadwell of the Grace Community United Methodist Church in Shreveport said in an emailed statement. “This bill is not about religious freedom. While my own denomination diligently struggles with this subject … as Louisianans and people of faith we want to practice hospitality, not exclusion.”
Frances Kelley of Equality Louisiana said in the statement that “many faith leaders, especially here in the Shreveport-Bossier area which Rep. Johnson represents, do not agree with his bill.”
The bill’s backers, including Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, argue it is meant to protect religious people from government abuse. It would, for instance, bar the government from pulling licenses or tax benefits from businesses whose owners openly oppose gay marriage.
On April 13, the first day of Louisiana’s 2015 legislative session, Jindal made the bill one of his three legislative priorities. It was initially rejected by House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, who refused to assign it to a committee before Johnson addressed some of the concerns brought up by opponents. Johnson changed some language that could have been used by private businesses to deny employee benefits to legally recognized same-sex married couples. The proposed legislation has since been referred to the Civil Law and Procedure Committee for review.
Jindal expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage in a New York Times op-ed, published Thursday. “I hold the view that has been the consensus in our country for over two centuries: that marriage is between one man and one woman,” he wrote. “Polls indicate that the American consensus is changing — but like many other believers, I will not change my faith-driven view on this matter, even if it becomes a minority opinion.”
Several major companies with offices in Louisiana have expressed disapproval for the bill. Executives for IBM penned a letter to Jindal saying they were “deeply concerned” by his stand. "[A] bill that legally protects discrimination based on same-sex marriage status will create a hostile environment for our current and prospective employees, and is antithetical to our company's values,” the letter, dated April 15 and posted to the companies website, stated. IBM is building an 800-job facility in Baton Rouge.