By Nick BeJeaux
With the heated controversy surrounding Indiana’s recent Religious Freedom Restoration Act and its protection of businesses who choose to refuse service to certain (usually LGBT) individuals on religious grounds, Americans are wondering what’s next in their own states. Here in Louisiana, State Representative Mike Johnson (R-Bossier City) filed HB 707, The Marriage and Conscience Act, in April on the heels of the reignited religious freedom debate.
In an interview with DIG, Johnson said that he decided to file HB 707 to settle a concern of his and his colleagues.
“I have a background in Constitutional law and I’ve been concerned about this issue for a long time,” he said. “Everyone that I’ve spoken to in that field of law agrees that there is conflict between religious liberty and changing ideas on marriage. All this bill does is address these concerns.”
Johnson says that unlike the religious freedom bills that have been grabbing national attention in Indiana and Arkansas, this bill has nothing to do with religion. He believes, instead, that the language protects citizens from government intervention based on their view of marriage — both straight and LGBT alike.
“Simply read the bill — it does not offer any positive right to discriminate,” said Johnson. “It only prevents any adverse state action and has nothing to do with private businesses. The discussion right now is about bakers and florists refusing service to people whose beliefs conflict with their own — no language covers that.”
Johnson has already made changes to this bill, deleting a contentious paragraph R.S. 13:5245(B)(4), which refers to federal qualifications for employee benefit plans and was originally a reiteration of the bill’s intent. Johnson also said that he would be willing to make further changes if the public’s opposition to the bill proves to be substantial.
“I’m always open to making legislation as specific as it can be,” he said. “This bill was created to protect the right of conscience for everyone, and if there is a better way to do that the legislature should be open to it.”
Equality Louisiana, a LGBT rights activist group, has voiced several concerns about the legislation. Bruce Parker, Director of Louisiana Progress and EQLA Coalition Manager, says that Johnson believes his bill will accomplish what he says it will, but many don’t see it that way.
“I’m not so sure that preserving the right of conscience for everyone is what this bill will do,” said Parker. “Other groups, like the Family Forum and the American Civil Liberties Union — who often disagree on many things — are saying that these bills will accomplish what’s being done Indiana and Arkansas, and then some. So there is a general consensus on the right and the left about what this bill does.”
Parker says that groups like EQLA are focusing on public education and outreach in hopes of finding a way to defeat the bill.
“We’re taking a very civil tone to educate and inform the public,” Parker said. “Also, we’re reaching out to representatives to vote against the bill and for them to even ask Johnson to retract the legislation.”
Last week, EQLA and Louisiana Progress Action launched a campaign in opposition to HB 707 called “Not My Louisiana.” According to organizers, it aims to raise awareness and give individuals, organizations, and businesses avenues ways to take action against this legislation. Since the launch of the campaign, more than 40 organizations based in Louisiana have been added as campaign partners, according to a statement provided by EQLA..
“Shreveport is up in arms over this. The film industry is big there and they have major concerns about this bill. And New Orleans of course is not happy, they’re afraid tourism will suffer,” Parker said.
Violet Tremblay, owner of Painting and Pinot here in Baton Rouge, is one of many business owners concerned about the repercussions of passing and enacting HB 707.
“As a business owner in Louisiana, I am concerned about any proposed law that would legalize discrimination against anyone,” said Tremblay in an EQLA statement. “As a Christian, I am very troubled by any effort that uses Christian values to defend treating any of our neighbors unfairly.”
Casey Phillips, Creative Director of The Force Agency, raised concerns about the economic impact this kind of legislation would have on Louisiana.
“With the backlash the country has seen in Arkansas and Indiana to similar bills, it is clear that legislation such as HB 707 will have a detrimental effect on our economy,” Phillips said in the same statement. “Discrimination is just bad for business.”