BATON ROUGE — A Louisiana lawmaker said Tuesday that changes are coming to his divisive religious objections bill, a key piece of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s legislative agenda that has run into sharp criticism over concerns that it could lead to discrimination against gays and other minorities.
“We are not in favor of discriminating against anyone,” said Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, who sponsored the bill as a means to protect workers including wedding planners, photographers and bakers who object to working with gay couples but fear state retribution.
As written, the legislation would ban the state from denying any resident business licenses, benefits or tax deductions because of actions that person takes “in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction” about marriage.
Similar legislation has been proposed and is igniting strong debate in several other states this year.
One of the changes Johnson is offering would make clear that the proposal shall “not be construed to authorize any act of discrimination.”
That, in effect, waters down the bill so it “doesn’t do anything,” said Keith Werhan, a constitutional expert with Tulane University Law School who reviewed the proposed amendment.
“If you really parse the language, it’s not doing anything,” Werhan said. “It doesn’t provide any real protection, any serious protection to a religious believer.”
The adjustments come as critics — including some lawmakers and LGBT activists — have questioned whether the bill would not just allow businesses and employers to discriminate against gay couples, but also interracial couples and those who remarry after a divorce.
“The bill never says ‘gay marriage,’ it doesn’t say ‘same-sex marriage,’ it just says ‘marriage’— so it could apply whether someone is opposed to interracial marriage, it could be gay marriage, it could be someone who is on their second or third marriage,” said Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite.
Johnson fired back that critics have launched a campaign of “fear and intimidation and misinformation.”
“Marriage, as it is defined in Louisiana, is between a man and a woman,” he said. Any talk that the bill would sanction discrimination against interracial couples or divorced people seeking to remarry, he said, was “an attempt to exploit not only the spirit of this legislation, but the letter of it as well.”
He has proposed an amendment clarifying that point.
Religious objections laws have proved contentious in Arkansas and Indiana where they ignited incendiary debate that pitted LBGT activists and business groups against social conservatives.
Louisiana has proven to be no exception, where Jindal and Senate President John Alario, a fellow Republican, are at odds over the legislation.
On Monday, the opening day of the legislative session, hundreds of bills were introduced, but Johnson’s proposal was the only one not referred to a committee.
That changed Tuesday.
After giving a speech to his colleagues about his intentions for the bill, Johnson tried to make his changes on the House floor, but he encountered resistance and withdrew the amendments. The bill then was sent to the House civil law committee, and Johnson said he’ll seek to make his changes there. No hearing date on the legislation was immediately set.