Indiana Jonesing

by Lamar White Jr.

Newbie GOP state rep and culture warrior Mike Johnson of Bossier City wants to one-up the Hoosier State — at the risk of Louisiana’s $5 billion-per-year tourism industry.

Twenty-four years ago, during the most consequential and controversial election in Louisiana history, Buddy Roemer, the incumbent governor who had just rebranded himself as a Republican, refused to state the obvious. Privately, his campaign aides had been begging him. They had all of the talking points memorized. They even filmed a couple of slickly-produced television commercials, which they screened for him in the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge. Roemer nixed the ads before they could ever air, and a few short weeks later, voters handed Gov. Roemer an eviction notice.

In his book, The Rise of David Duke, Tyler Bridges lays it out: With the glare of the international spotlight on the run-off election, Edwin Edwards repeated, like a mantra, the very thing Roemer wouldn’t: David Duke would devastate Louisiana tourism. David Duke would destroy the state’s already battered reputation. But most important, David Duke would be disastrous for the Louisiana business community.

Almost instantly, the once-struggling Edwards campaign picked up millions in donations from all corners of the country. He won the endorsements of Louisiana’s top business leaders and a dazzling roster of prominent Republican politicians, many of whom had spent the bulk of their careers fiercely battling Edwards at every conceivable opportunity. As a result, Edwin Washington Edwards became Louisiana’s first-ever four-term governor, crushing David Duke in an election that was officially called within minutes of polls closing. Duke, to be sure, somehow managed to win between 55 percent to 60 percent of white voters, a shameful and embarrassing statistic he continues to gloat about almost every time he can, further reinforcing the notion that the 31 percent of Louisiana citizens who are African-American never really counted or mattered to the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Today, I mention all of this for a reason. The three Republicans and the lone Democrat currently seeking to take over the lease on the fourth floor of the state Capitol would be wise to learn from Buddy Roemer’s reluctance to state the obvious.

This week, Bobby Jindal, who now has the dubious distinction of being the least popular governor in Louisiana history, announced his support for Louisiana House Bill 707, which the state media, particularly The Times-Picayune, has continuously and incorrectly editorialized as "religious freedom" legislation in its reporting.

Johnson, left, at a conservative conference with Focus on the Family leader James Dobson, who in a 2004 re-election rally for Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said, “Homosexuals are not monogamous. They want to destroy the institution of marriage. It will destroy marriage. It will destroy the Earth.”

HB 707, authored by freshman State Rep. Mike Johnson of Bossier City, has absolutely nothing to do with "enhancing religious freedom," as he and Gov. Jindal have both claimed; rather, it is entirely, transparently motivated and designed to codify bigotry and state-sanctioned discrimination against a specific minority group — LGBT Americans. I respectfully request the The Times-Picayune dispense with the Orwellian language that cynical lawmakers regularly employ to convince otherwise good people of the need and the reasonableness of proposed legislation.

The Louisiana Science Education Act, for example, had nothing to do with expanding legitimate, peer-reviewed science and everything to do with teaching new earth creationism — a undeniably religious belief — as science.

To borrow a colloquialism from our neighbors in Texas, this isn't out first rodeo. We should know better.

Johnson, a lawyer, may be new to the state Legislature, but he already considers himself somewhat of a celebrity. Quoting from his website's biography (bold mine):

He has spoken before tens of thousands in various settings, and been interviewed and featured more than 1,000 times on radio and in national media outlets including The O’Reilly Factor, Fox and Friends, Hannity & Colmes, ABC's Good Morning America, NBC’s Today Show, CNN, CBS, MSNBC, the BBC, National Public Radio, TIME magazine, Citizen magazine, World magazine, and most major newspapers across the country.

Mr. Johnson has also provided legal representation and consultation for various state and local government entities and officials and many national organizations, including Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, and the National Day of Prayer Task Force, and served as a trustee of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and on the Commission on Marriage and Family in the administration of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

Johnson was also the founding dean of Louisiana College's Pressler School of Law, which sank more than $5.5 million and never opened its doors or admitted a single student. As dean, Johnson reportedly earned an annual salary of more than $190,000, despite that he was unable to convince the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to even consider the law school for accreditation. Leigh Guidry of Gannett reported the story a year ago. Quoting (bold mine):

According to a letter from former LC board member Heath Veuleman, (former LC President) Aguillard blamed Johnson for SACS's denial for level change at a meeting of the LC Board of Trustees Executive Committee.

"The President stated that M. Johnson, Esq. did not complete the College's 2012 level change application to SACS timely or correctly, and that M. Johnson, Esq., was the reason the level change request was denied by SACS," Veuleman wrote in a letter dated Dec. 5, 2012. He was on the board when he wrote the letter.

Mike Johnson fashions himself a celebrity culture warrior for the religious right, which is likely why he was hand-selected by Louisiana College President Joe Aguillard to launch a new law school. And despite his abysmal failure at LC, which — in fairness to him — may have more to do with Joe Aguillard's incompetence than anything else, Johnson has managed to earn a successful living litigating a religious war on behalf of Christian dominionist causes. Shortly before his election to the Louisiana House of Representatives, Johnson was hired by the state attorney general to defend a challenge to Louisiana's ban on same-sex marriage to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Put another way, Johnson has been earning a paycheck fighting against gay rights and marriage equality for much of his professional career. So, when he tells The Times-Picayune about his proposed legislation, "This is not an Indiana thing. This is not an Arkansas thing. I'm not sure why it would upset anyone," and when he describes his bill as “protecting business owners from government retaliation based on their personal beliefs about marriage,” or when he says his legislation "is meant to protect people on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate," he is not playing stupid. He may be a newbie in Baton Rouge, but he’s unquestionably a smart attorney who knows how to carefully construct his messaging.

The problem, though, is that Mike Johnson is lying.

If Rep. Johnson’s bill sails through the Legislature and the governor signs it, Jindal and any and every other employer in the state of Louisiana could fire an employee or refuse service to a customer — a meal, a hotel room, a bouquet of flowers, clothing — simply for believing in marriage equality.

Louisiana is an employment-at-will state, which means most employees can be fired without any cause and for almost any reason under the sun. Even though discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender and disability are at least minimally protected under the law, employment discrimination cases are almost impossibly difficult to prove, and currently, there are no statewide protections in place for workforce and housing discrimination against LGBT residents, though New Orleans and Shreveport have adopted local ordinances guaranteeing those protections. In fact, Louisiana already has, on its books, a state law analogous to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Rep. Johnson is not expanding the protections guaranteed under existing state law; he is attempting to pre-emptively redefine the entire meaning, purpose and scope of the law.

Johnson's "Marriage and Conscience Act" would not be a law that promotes and protects religious freedom; it'd be one that codifies private sector and marketplace discrimination against gays and lesbians and, importantly, anyone and everyone who supports same-sex marriage.

Last year, LSU's State Survey revealed that more than 50 percent of Louisiana residents support civil unions, and 42 percent support complete marriage equality. Although the numbers have not yet been released for this year, I understand the approval numbers have continued to trend upward, hovering near the statistical margin of error for the first time ever.

As a hypothetical: Gov. Jindal could not walk into his office tomorrow on the fourth floor of the Capitol and declare, publicly, that he was purging his office of every African-American unclassified employee, arguing that his sincerely held religious belief in the Old Testament account of the Curse of Ham led him to conclude in the spiritual, moral and intellectual inferiority of Africans. But right now, under present state law, there is nothing preventing Gov. Jindal from immediately firing each and every LGBT employee at his office (and believe it or not, there are a few), arguing that his sincerely held religious belief in a couple of cherry-picked passages in Leviticus led him to conclude that gays and lesbians are abominations of God and should be stoned to death.

If Rep. Johnson’s bill sails through the Legislature and the governor signs it, Jindal and any and every other employer in the state of Louisiana could fire an employee or refuse service to a customer — a meal, a hotel room, a bouquet of flowers, clothing — simply for believing in marriage equality.

Last Sunday on Meet the Press, Gov. Jindal was adamant that this type of legislation only aims to protect the absurdly small handful of cake bakers,photographers and florists who refuse services to those planning gay weddings.Never mind the decades of institutionalized discrimination, the countless scores of children who have ended their own lives due to the bullying they endured for being gay, the ostracisation and the humiliation, never mind how impossibly intolerant that Southerners, in particular, are toward gay and lesbian citizens — children, teenagers and adults. For Bobby Jindal, however, the real victims are the owners of a pizza restaurant who raised $1 million online after declaring they'd go out of business if they were forced to serve pizza at a gay wedding in Indiana. Quoting from Huffington Post:

But Jindal said Sunday that he believes bakers, florists and other businesses should be allowed to deny goods and services to gay couples looking to get married.

"If it is a sincerely held religious belief that it offends the owner's beliefs to participate in that wedding ceremony, absolutely," Jindal said when Todd asked him if a restaurant should be legally allowed to refuse to cater a same-sex wedding. "I don't think the government should be able to force somebody to contradict their own sincerely held religious beliefs to participate in a wedding ceremony, and that used to be a bipartisan consensus."

Let's take a step back for a minute. I've never been married but a few years ago, my younger brother and I walked our little sister down the aisle. As many mothers can relate, my mom helped plan and pay for almost every aspect of my sister's wedding. My mom may have said, back then, that the whole experience was stressful and hectic, but I know she relished almost every minute of it.

I have another dear friend from high school.I'll call her Christine. A couple of months ago, she sent me a Save the Date card, announcing that she was set to tie the knot with her long-time girlfriend. Knowing Christine's mother, I imagine she too is just as excited as mine was about planning the details of her only daughter's wedding.

Smartly (and because she can't legally do so), Christine isn't getting married in Louisiana, but just for the sake of argument, let's say she was. Let's also imagine that Christine's mother worked as a master pastry chef for the best bakery in town and that, because of her contract with the bakery, she was prohibited from baking any cakes for large events without the owner's prior consent. But the owner of this bakery refused; he claimed his religious belief instructed him not to engage in commerce with gay people or even the mother of a gay child. Under Mike Johnson's proposed law, Christine's mother could be fired from her job; she could lose all of her pension benefits, and she would have absolutely no recourse in the courts. See Section 5245(B)(3).

Johnson rubs shoulders with Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schafly, who in December 2014 told rightwing news site World News Daily (regarding the Rolling Stone-University of Virginia campus rape controversy), “It’s really dangerous for a guy to go to college these days. He’s better off if he doesn’t talk to any women when he gets there. The feminists are perfectly glad to make false accusations and then claim all men are capable of some dastardly deed like rape.” Johnson’s campaign website also shows him in the company of such rightwing luminaries as Chuck Norris, Ted Cruz, Kirk Cameron and Rick Santorum.

As it's written now, Johnson's bill could lead to exactly those consequences: Gay and lesbian couples who simply want to get married and the straight friends and family members of those gay couples could lose their jobs, their pensions, their health care benefits, and even their retirement accounts merely for supporting marriage equality, no matter how big or small their employer is.

And under Johnson's and Jindal's tortured logic, all of this is perfectly permissible in order to ensure that a business owner has the "religious freedom" to impose his beliefs on his employees.

This is what religious liberty really means to Bobby Jindal, the exact opposite of what it meant to our Founding Fathers, and it is why labeling this bill as "religious freedom" legislation isn't just misleading; it's journalistic malpractice.

None of this is likely to persuade Gov. Jindal or state Rep. Johnson. They have built their careers kowtowing to the most paranoid fringes of the religious right. But make no mistake about it: Louisiana is now considering, with the full support of the least popular governor in the country, enacting a law much more extreme and much more offensive than what had recently been considered in Indiana and Arkansas.

If the leaders in the state Legislature are smart, if they truly care about the future of the state, if the candidates seeking to replace Bobby Jindal in the Governor's Mansion want to lead from a position of strength, inclusiveness and goodwill, they should learn from the lesson Gov. Roemer shredded from his playbook: Bigotry will devastate Louisiana's $5 billion-per-year tourism industry. Bigotry will destroy the state's already battered reputation. But most important, bigotry will be disastrous for the Louisiana business community.