Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a potential Republican presidential candidate, says he's making it a priority to pass his state's version of a "religious freedom" bill that would allow antigay discrimination -- and it's a harsher law than those that recently sparked outcry in Indiana and Arkansas.
"I know there has been legislation filed this session that aims to protect religious liberty rights in Louisiana," Jindal said in his State of the State address Monday, the Washington Blade reports. "Let me be crystal clear -- I absolutely intend to fight for the passage of this legislation -- and any other that seeks to preserve our most fundamental freedoms." His endorsement of the bill came just over a week after he dodged a question about it on Meet the Press.
Filed as House Bill 707, The Marriage and Conscience Act, authored by Rep. Mike Johnson, would prevent the state from penalizing a business owner or other individual for expressing a religious belief or moral conviction about marriage. This would mean, for example, that a wedding-related business couldn't be fined for refusing to serve a same-sex couple. It's broader than the since-altered Indiana and Arkansas laws because it involves not just religious, but also "moral" beliefs.
Jindal asserted that he is not for discrimination, but said the state could oppose discrimination and uphold religious liberty at the same time. But in the address, he appeared to be more worried about discrimination against people with conservative religious views. "In the United States, a state should not be able to take adverse action against an individual for holding a sincerely held religious view regarding marriage," he said. "That would be true discrimination."
Some political observers have doubts that Johnson's legislation will pass. It was the only bill, out of more than 700, that wasn't assigned to a committee Monday, the first day of the legislative session, reports The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. Then Tuesday, Johnson planned to add several amendments to the measure to allay concerns about discrimination, but withdrew the amendments at the last minute. The amendments will now be considered when the bill comes up in the House Civil Law and Procedure Committee, where it was finally assigned.
Johnson has already deleted one particularly controversial section of the bill, which would have allowed employers to deny benefits to workers' same-sex spouses. Johnson, a freshman Republican lawmaker, has been active in anti-abortion and anti-marriage equality causes, but he claims to deplore discrimination.
His bill "was only ever envisioned as an attempt to protect our citizens and their rights of conscience -- and not to harm anyone. ... If it were otherwise, I would not be involved in it," he said Tuesday, according to The Times-Picayune.
Some LGBT activists aren't buying that. "This bill is worse than any RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] in that it explicitly allows it explicitly allows discrimination based on an individual's religious beliefs about marriage," said Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow in a prepared statement. "Nobody gets to go into court for a balancing test, there's no interpretation by a state judicial system. It flat out gives individuals a right to discriminate, period."
And officials with statewide LGBT rights group Equality Louisiana have condemned Jindal's endorsement of Johnson's bill and said that if Jindal actually deplores discrimination, he should get behind a proposed bill to prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity -- but he has a record of opposing such legislation.
There is also some high-profile opposition to the "religious freedom" bill from state business interests and other politicians. The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau has asked Johnson to drop it, and even some conservative lawmakers consider it a distraction given that the state has pressing issues like a $1.6 billion budget deficit, The Times-Picayune reports. Senate President John Alario, a Republican and the most powerful Louisiana legislator, has said he couldn't support the bill unless it underwent significant changes.