- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a proposal to allow clergy and churches to refuse to perform or host same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, said his bill will protect clergy and religious organizations from being forced to violate a “sincerely held religious belief.” The Pastor Protection Act moved from the state House in an 80-18 vote. It advances to the Senate for a committee hearing.

The proposal, however, underwent a series of amendments to shape it, including language to exclude heterosexual interracial marriages from legal refusal and provisions to classify religious organizations as nonprofit groups.

Opponents have called the proposal discriminatory, unnecessary and suggest it could harm the state economy in the wake of other states’ strongly criticized religious objections legislation. Johnson rejected the claims outright, saying his proposal is “very dissimilar” to religious objection bills in Mississippi and Georgia.

“This legislation has nothing to do with business, industry or tourism,” Johnson said of the bill he modeled after Texas and Florida statutes that were “limited in scope” and passed “without any fanfare.”

Supporters of the measure said they appreciated Johnson’s attempt to protect religious beliefs from government intrusion and to support pastors’ sincerest convictions.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said he doesn’t oppose Johnson’s bill, though he said he believes the measure isn’t necessary.

“I don’t believe we have pastors today who are under threat of anything adverse happening to them if they don’t officiate a gay wedding, for example, if that would violate an article of faith that they have,” the Democratic governor said Tuesday.

Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, suggested the proposal could be used to discriminate and also questioned whether it was necessary. When asked by Moreno to give specific examples of Louisiana pastors forced to perform marriages, Johnson said a movement toward marriage coercion is “a clear and emerging issue in our state, as in states all around the country.”

Johnson argued that the measure is necessary in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage last year. The ruling has triggered “quickly eroding religious freedoms in this country,” he said.

“You can’t just cite the First Amendment (for religious protection) anymore,” he said.

But constitutional scholars disagree, saying First Amendment protections for clergy, worship and what happens inside the sanctuary are not in question.

Johnson brought a broader religious objections bill last year, which met opposition from business groups and LGBT advocates as it failed to gain enough support from a House committee. After the bill was rejected, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an executive order that attempted to reproduce some of the points in the stalled legislation. Questions were raised about whether Jindal’s order had the force of law, and a lawsuit challenging it as unconstitutional is pending.

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Online:

House Bill 597: www.legis.la.gov

House vote: https://1.usa.gov/1Vi0Uqd

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