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Louisiana Gov. Bans Anti-LGBT Bias in State Employment, Services

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards

John Bel Edwards's executive order includes a religious exemption, however, and applies to state contractors but not other private employers.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has come through on a promise to issue a pro-LGBT executive order -- the first in the state to offer transgender people some legal protections against discrimination -- and to repeal an anti-marriage equality one issued by his predecessor, Bobby Jindal.

Edwards, a Democrat who took office in January, issued the order today, reports New Orleans paper The Times-Picayune. It states that no branch of state government may discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment or the provision of services. It also bars businesses and nonprofits with state contracts from discriminating on these bases in employment, but exempts any contractor or subcontractor that is a "religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution, or religious society." Agencies affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church and other faith bodies have contracts with the state for educational, health care, and adoption services, The Times-Picayune notes.

Previous Democratic governors Edwin Edwards and Kathleen Blanco had issued executive orders banning discrimination in state employment on the basis of sexual orientation, but John Bel Edwards's is the first to include gender identity -- and the first with a religious exemption. Jindal, a Republican, had repealed Blanco's order in 2007. Louisiana does not have an LGBT-inclusive antidiscrimination law, and any governor's executive order can be rescinded by a future governor.

"We are fortunate enough to live in a state that is rich with diversity, and we are built on a foundation of unity and fairness for all of our citizens," Edwards said in a press release. "We respect our fellow citizens for their beliefs, but we do not discriminate based on our disagreements. I believe in giving every Louisianan the opportunity to be successful and to thrive in our state. Our goal is to promote the opportunities we have right here in Louisiana. While this executive order respects the religious beliefs of our people, it also signals to the rest of the country that discrimination is not a Louisiana value, but rather, that Louisiana is a state that is respectful and inclusive of everyone around us."

Edwards's order repeals one by Jindal, the Marriage and Conscience Order, which barred the state from taking punitive action against an individual, business, or nonprofit group acting in accordance with a "religious belief that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman." It was designed to protect business owners who didn't want to provide goods or services for same-sex couples' weddings; Jindal issued it last year after legislation to the same effect failed to pass. Edwards, in his press release, said Jindal's order "was meant to serve a narrow political agenda" and "threatens Louisiana's business growth" as well as going against "everything we stand for -- unity, acceptance, and opportunity for all." Several major businesses, such as IBM, had denounced Jindal's action.

Edwards also said he thought the religious exemption in his order would provide sufficient protection for religious liberty, The Times-Picayune reports. Some LGBT groups had said they would be comfortable with a religious exemption if it applied only to organizations directly affiliated with a church, but not one that would simply let any business owner claim religious objections, according to the paper. The language in Edwards's order appears to apply only to actual religious bodies.

The Human Rights Campaign, though, did not approve of the religious exemption, even as it praised other aspects of the order. "While the governors of North Carolina and Mississippi have signed into law discriminatory measures targeting LGBT people in the workplace, Gov. Edwards is standing up and sending a different message -- one that tells his fellow Southern governors that Louisiana will not turn its back on its motto of union and fairness," said HRC legal director Sarah Warbelow in a press release. "However, this cannot be the last action by Louisiana to ensure equality for all. This executive order still allows for religiously based state contractors to discriminate against LGBT employees while accepting taxpayer funds. We call on the state's elected officials to pass a law protecting all LGBT Louisianans from discrimination in the all workplaces and beyond."

The Forum for Equality, a Louisiana LGBT rights organization, likewise praised Edwards's action but said more needs to be done. "Forum for Equality, with our partners Louisiana Trans Advocates and Equality Louisiana, commends Gov. Edwards for taking this historic action in the fight for full equality for all Louisianans," said executive director SarahJane Brady in a statement on the group's website. "However, thousands of LGBT Louisianans still live without these protections every day. This executive order is only one step on the path forward, and Forum for Equality looks forward to continuing to work with Gov. Edwards and the state legislature to ensure that all Louisianans have the same protections no matter where they live, work, play, or pray."

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