With just a few hours to spare, Louisiana State Rep. Mike Johnson filed a bill Friday that would bar the state from treating someone differently because of his or her views on marriage – for example, making it illegal for the government to yank a business’ license if the owners stated that their religious beliefs defined marriage as between one man and one woman. Called the “Louisiana Marriage and Conscience Act,” the bill would give legal protections to businesses that make decisions based on those views, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
"In other words, [the government] will never be allowed to bully or coerce people simply because of what they believe about marriage,” Johnson, a Republican, wrote in a post published Friday on a conservative Louisiana political blog called the Hayride. Unlike recent so-called religious freedom laws that passed in Indiana and Arkansas, Johnson’s bill, he said, would not affect to whom private business owners could choose to deny their services. “This legislation simply prohibits discrimination by the state government against any person on the basis of their sincerely held beliefs about the institution of marriage, whatever those beliefs may be,” Johnson wrote.
Louisiana gay rights activists have been eyeing Johnson this week with trepidation after the Bossier City politician indicated interest in submitting a proposal to strengthen the state’s religious freedom act, which passed in 2010. Although he had yet to submit the bill by mid-Friday – the deadline for doing so was 4 p.m. local time – Johnson filed the proposal in time for consideration during the coming session.
Many in Louisiana speculated from the start that Johnson’s bill wouldn’t mirror the language used in recent bills passed in Indiana and Arkansas, which sparked nationwide criticism and were swiftly condemned by many as being anti-gay. However, some believe his law could open the door for certain types of discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. “I think Mr. Johnson might be surprised that it would allow some things that he may not have intended,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union.
Even if Johnson had failed to get his bill on the 2015 legislative agenda, “the concern is if he can’t do it that way, he’s going to find another way to accomplish the same goal,” said Bruce Parker, executive director of Louisiana Progress, a liberal group. “My assumption is that their strategy has to tip based on the response in Indiana and Arkansas.”
Conservative religious groups in Louisiana have been pushing for such legislation for some time. Johnson worked on the proposal with the Louisiana Family Forum, a Baton Rouge-based conservative advocacy group. The organization opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and supports the state’s covenant marriage law, which defines matrimony as between a man and a woman.
Parker said he spoke with Johnson about the proposal and expressed his concerns that such legislation could allow business owners to discriminate against gay and lesbian clients. Louisiana currently has no statewide law barring businesses from denying services to gays and lesbians based on their religious beliefs on same-sex marriage.
Many said it felt like Johnson’s bill was addressing an issue that doesn’t exist – namely, businesses having their licenses taken away by the state because of their stance on marriage. “I asked him on the phone if that’s a problem he’s seen in other parts of the country or in Louisiana,” said Parker. “His answer was, ‘The jury is still out on that one.’”