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Louisiana to become latest state to enter religious freedom debate


BATON ROUGE, La. — Even before the opening of Louisiana’s legislative session, a bill has thrust the state into the national debate over religious objections laws.

Opponents of the laws – which have drawn national headlines in Indiana and Arkansas – say they allow for businesses and others to discriminate against gays and lesbians on moral and religious grounds. But proponents say the laws protect religious-freedom rights, guarding individuals and businesses from heavy-handed state action.

In Louisiana, with the Legislature’s session set to open Monday, exactly what the Marriage and Conscience Act would allow is in dispute. Already, it is pitting socially conservative supporters against LGBT and business groups who call the bill exclusionary of same-sex couples.

As written, the legislation would ban the state from denying business licenses, benefits or tax deductions because of any actions a person takes “in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction” about marriage. Affected businesses could include wedding planners, photographers and bakers who object to working with gay couples but fear state retribution.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion about it, but I think the law speaks for itself,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Mike Johnson of Bossier City, a lawyer who has represented socially-conservative causes in court. “All this bill will do is say … the state can’t come in, withholding licenses or certification or some other tax benefit.”

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His bill already has a strong supporter in Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican courting evangelical Christians for a possible presidential bid.

But it faces opposition from powerful Senate President John Alario, also a Republican. And some legal experts say the bill will sanction discrimination.

“It gives individuals complete legal immunity to act according to their religious and moral conscience with respect to their views on marriage,” said Keith Werhan, a Tulane University constitutional law expert. “In doing that, it does license discrimination.”

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