Louisiana Republicans are fighting for a new kind of religious freedom law – one critics are calling far worse than the Indiana law that prompted national outrage earlier this month.
HB 707 -- the “Marriage and Conscience Act" -- says the state can’t take "adverse action" against someone for opposing same-sex marriage for religious reasons; sponsor Rep. Mike Johnson told msnbc he's hoping the bill will come up for a vote in the next few weeks. If passed, this law would likely ensure, for example, that the state couldn't punish a state worker who refuses to process paperwork on a name change following a gay marriage in another state, or a police officer who didn’t want to police a same-sex wedding ceremony.
“This Louisiana bill really does what people accused the Indiana law of doing,” leading religious freedom expert and University of Virginia law professor Doug Laycock told msnbc. While Indiana’s law offered up individuals accused of discrimination a legal defense that a judge could then weigh, Laycock explained, this law gives religious individuals absolute protection from state action, without balancing interests of – for instance – whether a gay individual’s right to services outweighs the religious individual's freedoms.
Laycock has weighed in on both sides of this debate before, having written an amicus brief last year supporting Hobby Lobby’s right to not pay for birth control, and another this year in support of same-sex marriage.
“The sponsor and the governor says it doesn’t authorize discrimination, I have no idea what that means, it pretty clearly does,” he added.
Gov. Jindal – who has made the bill a priority in his final legislative session -- defended its intentions in an email interview with msnbc.
“This is not about discriminating against anyone or about judging people. This is simply about protecting the essential religious freedom rights in the First Amendment,” he said.
HB707 is the kind of bill that’s likely to earn him some street cred among Christian conservatives, the very group of voters he’s working to woo ahead of a likely presidential bid. In Iowa last week, he sought to portray himself as a defender of so-called "religious freedom."
“Look, we’ve all been paying attention to what’s happening in Arkansas and Indiana. There is an assault on our religious liberties here in America,” he said in Cedar Rapids, Iowa last week. “Those on the left will try and distort this and try and mischaracterize this, they’ll try and distract us. Let’s make no mistake about what’s happening here and what’s a stake.”
Jindal is polling in single digits, below leading Republican colleagues former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- one of the most gay-friendly Republicans eyeing a 2016 bid so far -- and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has said he supports traditional marriage, but also dodged an awful lot of questions on same-sex marriage.
A legislative fight over religion could help get the Louisiana Republican get ahead among social conservatives and Jindal told msnbc he believes religious liberty will "absolutely" be a central issue in the 2016 election.
“I am concerned about the erosion of religious liberty rights that is happening today in our country,” he said, adding that while he'd have to see the specifics, he'd likely support similar legislation on a national scale. “We must fight with everything we have to protect it, and we can do that in a way that respects everyone and loves everyone.”
Critics say the Louisiana law – which originally focused on protecting those who believe in “traditional marriage,” but has since been amended to focus on those who oppose same-sex marriage after critics protested that divorces could be caught up in this law – is one of broadest, most discriminatory bills in the country.
“It’s just a blanket guarantee that you can discriminate,” Human Rights Campaign’s legal director Sarah Warbelow told msnbc. “We have seen laws in other states that would allow adoption agencies to discriminate, we’ve seen laws in other states that would allow the individual who provides the marriage license to be able to discriminate, but not for this sweeping range.”
Laycock – and the governor’s office -- are quick to note that the state can’t deny a person a service that it’s legal for them to obtain, but it will allow people at these agencies the right to refuse to serve gay consumers and subsequently delay it. “The state can’t do anything to that employee [who denies a gay person a service], but the state has to find somebody to do it,” Laycock said.
Critics say the bill is still alarming: “We would be very concerned that if a couple went into the emergency room and the hospital or hospital staff member said your marriage is a violation of my religion, so the sick person’s spouse wouldn’t be able to make decisions,” Warbelow said.
This bill is the latest effort by conservative legislators to codify Christian views into law: in Tennessee, Republican lawmakers are currently fighting to make the Holy Bible the state book and across the country, a dozen religious freedom laws are in the works following the Indiana and Arkansas bills that made headlines earlier this month.
In both states, Restoration of Religious Freedom Acts were proposed, which would have codified that those with religious convictions could use those convictions as a legal defense if they were accused of discrimination. Both states didn't have legal protections for gay and lesbian citizens and critics said the law would embolden and legalize discrimination, prompting national outrage and promises of a boycott. Indiana is spending millions to repair their image,The Indianapolis Star reported.
“I’ve come to see these laws and the conflict over them to be much more symbolic than they are practical,” evangelical Christian writer Dr. Alan Noble told msnbc. “The number of cases where that’s happened and they’ve gone to court is extremely small, we’re talking about a handful of cases.”
Christian conservatives have been decrying religious persecution in the U.S. for decades, but few issues have given them a rallying cry like controversy that surrounded religious freedom laws. Noble said the upcoming Supreme Court decision on gay marriage that’s expected for June has also prompted fears, and conservatives are trying to stake out a “safe space” in case it is legalized, he said.
He also said he expected politicians to use these "growing pains" to win votes.
“In 2016, you’re gonna see some candidates who are going to take what I believe is a legitimate concern about the future of pluralism in our country and ramp that up with hyperbolic language and stories taken out of context and paranoia to try and persuade voters,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to be successful and one of the reasons I say that is as conservative as conservatives are about these issues, the people who are supporting gay rights are just as fervent.”