- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 13, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Gov. John Bel Edwards issued an executive order Wednesday banning discrimination in state government based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Democratic governor also rescinded his Republican predecessor’s order offering protections to people who oppose same-sex marriage.

Edwards’ LGBT protection order prohibits state agencies, boards and contractors from harassment or discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, political affiliation, disability or age. State contracts will be required to include a similar anti-discrimination provision.

“We are fortunate enough to live in a state that is rich with diversity, and we are built on a foundation of unity and fairness for all of our citizens,” the governor said in a statement. “We respect our fellow citizens for their beliefs, but we do not discriminate based on our disagreements.”

Edwards’ order comes as states across the country, particularly in the South, wrestle with “religious freedom” legislation and laws that critics have called discriminatory against the LGBT community. Supporters say they’re trying to protect religious beliefs.

In Louisiana, the order includes an exemption for state contractors that are religious organizations. The provision affecting contractors takes effect July 1. The rest of the order starts immediately.

“While this executive order respects the religious beliefs of our people, it also signals to the rest of the country that discrimination is not a Louisiana value, but rather, that Louisiana is a state that is respective and inclusive of everyone around us,” Edwards said.

Louisiana doesn’t have a state law protecting the state’s LGBT residents from discrimination, and efforts to enact such a law have failed. Shreveport and New Orleans have passed their own anti-discrimination ordinances.

Edwards’ edict is similar to orders enacted by two former Louisiana Democratic governors - but he added language protecting against discrimination based on “gender identity,” a provision that protects transgender people.

Matthew Patterson, managing director of LGBT rights organization Equality Louisiana, said the executive order is “the first time transgender people have ever had any degree of statewide legal protections in Louisiana.”

Jason Doré, executive director of the Republican Party of Louisiana, called Edwards’ order a disappointment and a distraction in a state struggling with budget problems.

“If this move is an indication that he intends to advance a radical agenda for the next three years, his re-election campaign will be even more difficult,” Doré said in an email.

The governor’s office released statements of support from leaders of chambers of commerce in New Orleans and Shreveport.

“This action will help to solidify Louisiana’s current reputation as a welcoming place for business and talent,” said Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc.

Edwards, in office since January, also terminated a religious objections executive order issued by former Gov. Bobby Jindal last year. That “Marriage and Conscience” order from Jindal prohibited state agencies under the governor’s control from denying licenses, benefits, contracts or tax deductions to businesses and people that take actions because of a “religious belief that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.”

When he was a state lawmaker last year, Edwards opposed Jindal-backed legislation that would have enacted similar provisions in state law. That bill failed amid opposition from business groups and LGBT advocates, so Jindal followed up with the order.

Edwards described Jindal’s order as divisive and threatening to business growth.

“It goes against everything we stand for - unity, acceptance, and opportunity for all,” he said.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/melindadeslatte


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