Political Horizons: Gay marriage a long way off in La.

by mark ballard

Capitol news bureau

It was one of those rare emotional debates on the Louisiana House floor by legislators who had experienced the issue themselves, rather than the usual detached discourse of lawmakers advocating on behalf of some special interest.

Carrying photos of cute babies, a parade of representatives went to the podium with personal stories of infertile parents finding the answer to their dreams through the use of surrogate mothers.

An equal number went holding notes from powerful groups promoting “traditional family values.” The conservative Christian lobbyists, who have the ear of Gov. Bobby Jindal, passed notes to legislators that condemned the proposed “wombs for rent” legislation as “misguided compassion.”

Senate Bill 162 is sponsored by state Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco, whose family has twice contracted with a surrogate mother to birth babies from biological material provided by him and his wife. He pushed legislation that would create a legal framework that would regulate payments and provide courts with guidance on everyone’s responsibilities in a surrogate contract. The proposed law specifically says that only married couples can use a surrogate mother.

Opposing lawmakers stood toe-to-toe for well over an hour as debate became increasingly angry and personal.

A couple of amendments were attached to SB162. But the most significant change took a total of 54 seconds from introduction to approval, without objection. That addition stated that should the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to rule next month, overturn Louisiana’s prohibition on gay marriage, the surrogate law “shall be null, void and given no effect.”

The final bill passed on an 88 to 5 vote.

Joe Traigle, a Baton Rouge businessman and gay rights activist, later quipped that Louisiana legislators can overcome the most contentious of issues by rallying around their prejudice against gays. But it’s proof that this state, once again, is paddling against the tide, he said.

Minnesota on May 14 became the 12th state — the third in the past month — to allow same-sex marriage. Illinois’ legislature will vote on a bill next week that could make that state the 13th to approve gay marriage. And on Thursday more than 60 percent of the more than 1,400 volunteer leaders in the Boy Scouts of America voted to end the group’s long-standing policy forbidding gays from participating.

Traigle recalled discussing the issue over a recent lunch with former Gov. Edwin Edwards. They agreed, he says, that Louisiana would probably be the last state to overturn its constitutional ban on gay marriages; and even then, it would fold kicking and screaming.

Their gut feel was supported by a column last week in The Guardian.

The British publication cited numbers from several polls from different sources, including the Pew Research Center, and predicted all but six U.S. states would allow gay marriage within the next six years.

Though support for same-sex unions in the American South is approaching 40 percent of the population — and growing each year, particularly among younger Southerners — six Deep South states, including Louisiana, have “a far higher percentage of white evangelicals than any other part of the country, and these voters have been very slow to change their views,” The Guardian reported.

Only 11 percent of Louisiana’s Republicans, the state’s dominant political party, support gay marriage, according to the publication. “It’s pretty clear that Southern Republican support for gay marriage is lower than among Republicans nationally. As such, it’s difficult to see how support among Southern Republicans will hit 50 percent anytime before 2040,” the Guardian predicted.

State Rep. Walt Leger III, the New Orleans Democrat who handled the surrogate bill on the House floor, probably wouldn’t disagree with the British view of the Louisiana political scene. He said sponsors of SB162 would try to strip the amendment during conference committee. That aside, Leger predicted it would be a long time before Louisiana embraces gay marriage.

State Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, says his amendment to the surrogate bill had nothing to do with gay marriage. It was aimed at upholding Louisiana law, he said.

Still, regardless of what other states do and what the U.S. Supreme Court decides, Hoffmann says he opposes same-sex unions, as do most Louisiana voters. “I won’t say ‘ever,’ but I don’t see that happening in Louisiana,” he said of gay marriage.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.