May 18, 2015 11:19 AM
Rep. Mike Johnson

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Many lawmakers don't want to talk about it. Others wish it would simply disappear.

Nonetheless, on Tuesday, the House civil law committee is scheduled to debate the religious objections bill backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal that thrust Louisiana into a national debate over religious freedom and the rights of same-sex couples.

The proposed law would prohibit the state from denying individuals, businesses and non-profits any licenses, benefits, jobs or tax deductions because of action taken "in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction" about marriage.

Sponsored by Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, the measure stirred controversy before the legislative session even began. Supporters say it would protect the religious views of those who believe marriage should be between a man and woman, while critics have said it will sanction discrimination against same-sex couples.

Backlash to similar efforts in Indiana and Arkansas prompted changes to those laws.

Jindal, who is courting Christian conservatives for a likely presidential campaign, made the bill a priority. Meanwhile, some businesses oppose the measure, including IBM, which has plans for an 800-worker facility in Baton Rouge.

Until recently, however, it was unclear if the bill would get a hearing. Many lawmakers — including Republican Senate President John Alario, who is opposed — have said they would rather focus on the state's $1.6 billion budget shortfall.

Aside from Johnson, Rep. Patrick Jefferson, D-Arcadia, was the only other committee member who responded to a request for comment on the upcoming hearing.

"All of us have the right to file whatever bill we want," Jefferson said. "I would just say that it could have happened at another time."

Same-sex couples are not allowed to marry under Louisiana's constitution, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman, and there are no specific legal protections from discrimination for gays and lesbians. But Johnson said one reason he proposed the law is because a U.S. Supreme Court case could soon strike down same-sex marriage bans across the country.

What his bill will — and won't — do is subject to intense debate.

Johnson said the bill will shield religious objectors should same-sex marriage become legal.

"You can't get the death penalty ... for your businesses, your trade, your profession, if you don't go along with some new idea about marriage," he said of the bill.

Attempting to tamp down the uproar, Johnson plans to make changes that would prohibit discrimination between "private persons."

But that hasn't lessened criticism.

If the high court strikes down marriage bans, Johnson's bill would allow landlords to deny rental applications, businesses to fire employees, and state workers to refuse to assist same sex-couples, said Matthew Patterson, with Equality Louisiana, a pro-LGBT group.

"We're still left with a bill that does not give the state any ability to prevent or remedy an act of discrimination," he said.

Jefferson said he's spoken with fellow lawmakers who think the bill casts the state in a negative light and will be bad for business, especially in tourism-rich New Orleans.

"I'm concerned about the imprint or impression of discrimination in any form," he said.

Despite the criticism and the session's end in four weeks, Jindal remains optimistic about the measure's chances.

"We've had a lot of good conversations with legislators, pastors and community groups that support this bill," Jindal spokesman Mike Reed said in a statement. "There's plenty of time for the bill to move through the process."

But with the state's budget problems and lawmakers already faced with other tough votes, Jefferson had a different take: "The timing couldn't have been more challenging."