Louisiana 'Marriage and Conscience Act' modeled after 14th Amendment

by Karen L. Willoughby, |
Creative Commons

BATON ROUGE, La. (Christian Examiner) -- When the sponsor of Louisiana's version of the Federal Religious Freedom Act agreed Tuesday to remove some controversial language, it was widely accepted the bill would pass in the next Legislative session.

Mike Johnson, first-term state representative from Bossier City, La., and an attorney specializing for more than 20 years in constitutional law, filed HB 707 on April 3.

The Marriage and Conscience Act relates to the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"This is not an Indiana thing; this is not an Arkansas thing," Johnson told the Times Picayune now known as NOLA.com. "I'm not sure why it would upset anyone."

Johnson describes his bill as protecting business owners from government retaliation based on their personal beliefs about marriage.

But after an initial outcry from gay activists when the bill was published, Johnson deleted a paragraph related to federal qualifications for employee benefit plans that "was originally included in the bill merely as an acknowledgement and restatement of existing law," according to a column on TheHayride.com, a Louisiana-based conservative political commentary site.

"I have had productive conversations with some very thoughtful people who have expressed concern about the specific language of that subsection," The Hayride quoted Johnson as saying. "Rather than trying to modify the wording, I've decided it will be best to simply eliminate that paragraph entirely to avoid any future confusion.

"This bill is a good faith effort to protect the rights of conscience for all Louisiana citizens," Johnson continued, "and we want to be sure its language accurately reflects that."

The bill would allow private businesses to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage, should it become legal in Louisiana. Marriage and Conscience Act is more focused than was either the Indiana or Arkansas bills; it deals specifically with religious beliefs in relation to same-sex marriage.

"Polling suggests that could -- emphasis on could -- be more popular and more difficult for opponents to beat back, according to a Washington Post article.

"With a decision coming from the Supreme Court that could possibly allow same-sex couples in Louisiana to obtain marriage licenses, Rep. Johnson is trying to preemptively give individuals and businesses a way to disregard federal laws and rulings," said Equality Louisiana in a written statement.

Gay rights advocates said Louisiana's bill was more discriminatory than similar bills being debated in Arkansas and Indiana.

"This bill is worse than any RFRA in that it explicitly allows discrimination based on an individual's religious beliefs about marriage," said Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow told the Washington Post.

Gay activists in Indiana and Arkansas warned of economic consequences over recent similar legislation in those states, and "Anything that would make Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, less competitive when it comes to attracting major events and conferences could be a problem," according to NOLA.com.

Bruce Parker, coalition manager for Equality Louisiana, said the Human Rights Campaign is reviewing the Louisiana legislation, and could start calling for artists and events to avoid the state as early as mid-April if its finds the bill to be problematic.

"The idea that Rep. Johnson's pre-emptive attack on the rights of Louisiana citizens being cloaked somehow in religious freedom is disingenuous at best," said state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party.

"This matter of preserving the right of conscience is a critically important issue we should address before the session ends," Johnson said.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal on April 8 announced his full support of HB 707.

The bill is a "common sense bill that provides necessary protections for individuals to prevent adverse treatment from the state based on religious beliefs regarding marriage," said the governor's spokesperson, Shannon Bates Dirmann. "We are always interested in supporting bills that strengthen religious liberty protections in Louisiana."

Jindal spoke April 3 to a gathering of evangelicals at a Good Friday breakfast in Des Moines, Iowa.

"I don't know about you, but sometimes it feels like evangelical Christians are the only group that it's okay to discriminate against today in this society," said Jindal, a potential candidate for the U.S. presidency in 2016.

He backed a religious protection law passed in Louisiana in 2010 and chided Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence for backing down from the RFRA controversy in their state.