In Louisiana this legislative session, a new freshman legislator, Rep Mike Johnson (R) of Shreveport proposed a new twist on religious freedom laws that have been in the news recently around the nation. Unlike expansive laws proposed and passed, then revisited, in Indiana and Arkansas due to the public and business outcry, the Louisiana law proposed was very narrow. The law would have prohibited the state from taking four specifically delineated actions such as revocation of business licenses or revocation of tax standing against individuals or businesses who take certain actions considered in compliance with their religious beliefs solely as related to same sex marriage, whether for or against such marriages. Rep. Johnson also proposed amendments that would have specifically prohibited discrimination in the marketplace in the legislation.
The Louisiana Tea Party, and various social conservative and religious groups supported Rep. Johnson, who for seventeen years has litigated religious freedom issues for social conservative organizations and causes. Other religious organizations, pastors and ministers, members of the LGBT community and civil and human rights organizations opposed the bill. Many major business, economic development and tourism marketing organizations also opposed the bill on multiple grounds, including potential negative impacts to the Louisiana brand, industrial recruitment, and the multi-billion dollar meeting and convention business in New Orleans. The impact of the bill was potentially relatively minor, but opposing organizations believed it created a slippery slope toward potential discrimination.
After careful deliberation today, the House Civil Law and Procedure committee voted overwhelmingly in bipartisan fashion across party lines 10 – 2 to return HB 707 – The Marriage and Conscience Act, to the calendar, meaning the bill would not advance past the first step in the legislative process, the committee hearing, to the House Floor for debate. The bill that was discussed and voted down in committee today sought to address an issue that does not exist in our state – persecution of business owners by the state when practicing religious freedom. In fact, there is not one case pending in Louisiana of discrimination on the basis of views held on same-sex marriage…..a strong statement on the openness, hospitality, and commitment to equality of all Louisiana businesses.
Many conversations were overheard in the hallways of the Capitol today that the measure was filed to generate additional fundraising capacity for social conservative organizations and their political base, as well as a preventative reaction to the potential establishment by the U.S. Supreme Court in June of same-sex marriage validity as the law of the United States on equal rights grounds. Social conservatives around the nation are exploring various ways to temper that anticipated ruling, although it was unclear from the hearing today how a proposed state statutory action could mitigate or in any manner override a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in any matter.
Since the resounding legislative defeat shortly after noon today, Governor Bobby Jindal, who formed a presidential exploratory committee this week and has positioned himself as a national leader on religious freedom matters, has announced plans to issue an Executive Order that would mirror some of the narrow intent of HB 707 as related to state actions. We perceive this as largely a political statement by our conservative governor in support of his national position on the issue. That is certainly his right. The issuance of this Executive Order will have very little practical impact, however, since under the Louisiana Constitution and statutes, and according to on-point court decisions as recently as December of 2014, no Executive Order of a governor may create substantive law, even in an emergency situation. Thus, any belief that the Executive Order could enact law similar to that proposed by Rep. Johnson is simply unfounded and would not survive a court test. Furthermore, there are no current cases of such discrimination pending in Louisiana, something of which the Louisiana business community may be proud.
We respect the political and personal religious views of Rep. Johnson and Governor Jindal. But, we have heard extensively from corporate and association customers valued at hundreds of millions of dollars to Louisiana and its citizens, that they want to see issues similar to those that exploded in Indiana and Arkansas handled in sensitive, tolerant ways, even though this legislation and the governor’s Executive Order are far narrower and less impactful. Our industry remains committed to total tolerance and inclusiveness in the free marketplace and such is demanded by our customers nationally and internationally. We are opposed to all legislation that could negatively impact our state’s economy and our reputation as an international and national leader in economic development, digital media, tourism, meetings, conventions and special events.
The multi-billion dollar New Orleans tourism industry made its case in committee today and 10 out of 12 legislators agreed with our position that this bill is bad business for Louisiana. We are grateful for the wisdom of the members for the House of Civil Law and Procedure Committee, and proud that the true spirit of hospitality prevailed in today’s overwhelming decision against this proposed bill.
The New Orleans tourism industry, along with other business sectors and leaders, intend to review the Governor’s executive order extensively this evening, but are certain that, based on our Louisiana Constitution and recent court rulings, the enactment of any substantive law changes unilaterally by the governor will not stand the tests of time or law.
We will continue to promote and market New Orleans and Louisiana as destinations for the world’s greatest vacations, conventions and meetings, and special events and as sites for economic growth and expansion that offer the ultimate in inclusiveness, tolerance, and acceptance.