Political Horizons: Tolerance bills face uphill battle

by mark ballard

mballard@theadvocate.com

Expect Monday to be another big day at the State Capitol for gay rights.

Two more bills are scheduled for hearings. But judging from the reception of earlier bills, Monday likely will be another frustrating day for people who want protection from discrimination because they prefer sex in a different way than the majority.

House Bill 199, which is on the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure agenda, is a massive piece of legislation that would insert sexual orientation and/or age into the list of traits for which Louisiana is forbidden to discriminate.

House Bill 871, which would establish protections for gays in the housing market, goes before the House Commerce Committee. A similar measure, House Bill 804, was withdrawn after receiving an icy reception March 31 before the same panel.

Tim S. West, president of Equality Louisiana, says the 2014 legislative session has been huge for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, called LGBT for short. His optimism at the number of bills being discussed is tempered by the lack of support among the majority of Louisiana legislators.

“There are some who would vote to hang us on the State Capitol grounds. If they could, they would. There are others who are struggling with this issue. They’re trying to understand, to come to grips,” West said.

He points to the debate a couple weeks ago on House Bill 12. It seemed simple. Remove some of the language from a 200-year-old statute that the U.S. Supreme Court found unenforceable. The debate meandered into likening homosexuality with pedophilia, and the legislation was defeated.

The Louisiana Family Forum, a Baton Rouge-based group that lobbies for conservative Christian values, passed out letters to the legislators condemning HB12 in all caps, bold and underlined: “R.S. 14:89 PROTECTS CHILDREN.”

Then, last week, state Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, presented House Bill 887, which would have forbidden many Louisiana employers from discriminating against gays in the workplace. While businessmen and employees — both gay and straight — testified for HB887, St. Germain whispered individually with members of House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure.

She then pulled the bill, later saying she only had three votes on the 13-member panel and did not want to subject supporters to a shower of ridicule like was seen earlier with House Bill 12.

“I didn’t want y’all to have to listen to that stupidity,” St. Germain said.

Business groups in other states embrace anti-discrimination policies, largely as an economic developmental tool because, to quote a February letter by a coalition of Arizona business groups, “an open and attractive place for visitors and top talent … will be the cornerstone of our continued economic growth.”

But that’s not the case in Louisiana.

The major business groups in this state oppose any legislation that would give the LGBT community any protective status not already conferred by Congress.

The gay community is not a class, like African-Americans and women, that has protected status conferred by Congress. Approving these bills would create a new way to sue business owners, says Jim Patterson, vice president of government relations for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

Patterson said though LABI opposes gay rights legislation, the decision is practical and not a statement on LGBT lifestyles.

“Unfortunately, there are others who have chosen to judge them,” Patterson said. “And that’s part of what unfortunately gets bled over into the decisions that we make, in the views of others.”

Patterson said the 20 or so states that have adopted laws that specifically ban discrimination for sexual orientation are mostly up north and out west.

West points out that in Louisiana alone, 133 companies have voluntarily adopted policies that forbid discrimination of gays. Most are corporations with a national presence: Whole Foods, Costco and Starbucks. But the list also includes locally based companies, such as VooDoo BBQ & Grill, of Mandeville; Kleinpeter Farms Dairy, of Baton Rouge; and Boasso America, of Chalmette.

West recalled that after that depressing hearing on the St. Germain legislation, he and a handful of the other supporters went to lunch. Conversation was, predictably, why they continue to live in a place where they are so obviously not wanted, not respected.

“I said, ‘Look, five or six years ago, we wouldn’t even have had a hearing. We wouldn’t have found someone to sponsor it. We’re making strides,’ ” West said. “But I’m little bit older, maybe a bit more patient.”

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