Louisiana

Louisiana Senate rejects religious-objections bill

Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson

BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana‘s state senators on Tuesday refused to enact a new law declaring that pastors and churches don’t have to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies or allow them in their facilities.

The Senate Judiciary B Committee voted 3-2 to shelve the bill, which had the overwhelming support of the House.

Opponents of the “Pastor Protection Act” proposal by Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, said existing law offers the protections sought and the measure was unnecessary.

“I believe that we do have stringent religious freedom protections in the current law in Louisiana,” said Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans. “We don’t need this law.”

Johnson described the proposal as “harmless” and narrowly tailored to protect people’s religious beliefs. When asked by Peterson, he couldn’t provide an example of a minister or clergy in Louisiana encountering any impediments to practice their beliefs.

“There hasn’t been a recent case. That’s a good thing,” Johnson said.

But he said he wanted to make sure that doesn’t happen and his proposal would further define the protections for clergy to practice their “sincerely held” beliefs.

Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, said the bill seemed like a “knee-jerk reaction” to last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that effectively legalized same-sex marriage. He said similar arguments were made after a high-court decision invalidated laws that banned interracial marriage five decades ago.

“My father once told me that, regardless of how you feel about something, you should never put discrimination in law. I feel like when I look at your bill we’re putting discrimination in law,” Morrell said.

In his introduction, Johnson, who is running for Congress, told senators the legislation had nothing to do with business or tourism and didn’t draw the type of criticism from those industry sectors that more broadly written bills received in other states.

But Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, testified against the proposal Tuesday, saying he was concerned about the message it would send to businesses. He described it as a “very damaging bill” that could cost the state millions, citing backlash in other states on religious-objections bills.

“Louisiana’s brand right now is seen as more progressive than many of our Southern states,” Perry said.

In support of the proposal, Gene Mills, president of the conservative Louisiana Family Forum, cited Bible passages describing marriage as between a man and a woman and said “religious freedom historically has trumped state regulation.”

“It seems like this would be a reasonable accommodation to afford that protection,” he said.

Morrell and Peterson said the state’s Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, enacted in 2010, covers Johnson’s concerns. Johnson replied that “the table has been reset” since the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage and a restatement of protections is needed.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards didn’t take a position supporting or opposing the bill, though he previously said the measure wasn’t needed and he didn’t believe pastors were “under threat of anything adverse happening to them if they don’t officiate a gay wedding.”

Voting to reject the bill were Sens. Morrell, Peterson and Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte. Voting for the bill were Sens. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, and Greg Traver, D-Shreveport. Committee Chairman Gary Smith, D-Norco, didn’t vote.

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