Religious objections bill rejected by La. House committee

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BATON ROUGE —

Louisiana lawmakers on Tuesday shelved a divisive religious objections bill pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal that critics and legal experts said could sanction discrimination against same-sex couples.

A House legal committee voted 10-2 for a procedural move designed to kill the proposal, ending weeks of controversy about the bill and handing Jindal a significant defeat for his legislative agenda.

But Jindal suggested the rejection doesn’t matter. He issued a statement saying that although he was disappointed with the vote, he will issue an executive order aimed at doing the same thing as the bill, “to prevent the state from discriminating against persons or entities with deeply held religious beliefs that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

How far the term-limited Republican governor’s legal authority would stretch with that order, however, wasn’t immediately clear.

Rep. Mike Johnson, the lawmaker who sponsored the proposal, said he would push for another hearing this legislative session.

“We don’t throw in the towel. We always stand for freedom,” Johnson, a Bossier City Republican, said after the hearing. “We’re entering a new era in America where changing ideas about the institution of marriage conflict with the old ideas about religious freedom.”

Louisiana does not allow same sex marriage and also does not offer legal protections to gays and lesbians. But Johnson proposed the bill because he predicts a U.S. Supreme Court ruling expected in June will strike down gay marriage bans across the country.

As written, the proposed law would prohibit the state from denying individuals, businesses and nonprofits any licenses, benefits, jobs or tax deductions because of action taken “in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction” about marriage

Critics, including many in the business community, said the bill would sanction discrimination against LGBT couples — though Johnson disagrees.

What the measure would do, however, is bar the state from taking punitive action against a person who refused to serve someone based on their same-sex marriage.

That, in effect, would allow discrimination, critics say.

Proponents of the bill have cited wedding photographers and bakers as examples of people who should have legal protection if they object to serving same-sex couples.

“It would effectively prevent you from getting the death penalty as a business owner if you stood by your traditional belief in marriage,” Johnson said. “I think that’s a belief that worthy of protection.”

But in the committee hearing, Johnson acknowledged that the bill would also bar the state from punishing an emergency room surgeon who refused to operate on someone in a same-sex marriage or a teacher who refuses to meet with a student’s gay or lesbian parents.

Stephen Perry, head of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, called the bill “radioactive” and said it would make Louisiana “complicit in officially state-sanctioned bigotry.”

“We’re attempting to … carve out the ability to discriminate, the ability to be bigoted,” said Perry, who was chief of staff to a former Republican governor.

The Vote

With a 10-2 vote, the House Civil Law and Procedure Committee used a procedural move designed to kill a religious objections bill that had drawn opposition from business and tourism leaders. Here’s how committee members voted:

Voting for the procedural move: Reps. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, committee chairman; Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, vice chair; Joe Bouie, D-New Orleans; John Bel Edwards, D-Amite; Randal Gaines, D-LaPlace; Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge; Patrick Jefferson, D-Homer; Gregory Miller, R-Norco; Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzles; and Patrick Williams, D-Shreveport.

Voting against the procedural move: Reps. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette; and Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City.

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