Louisiana legislators reject gay rights bill

Lawmakers have rejected a measure that would have made it illegal to refuse to sell or lease property to same-sex couples in Louisiana solely because they are gay, the latest setback for groups trying to advance gay rights legislation in the state.

Three Democrats joined nine Republicans on the House Commerce Committee in rejecting the measure Monday 12-3. None said specifically why they voted against House Bill 871.

HB871 by state Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, would have added sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran’s status, source of income, domestic abuse victim status and conviction record to the list of characteristics a property owner could not use to deny someone housing.

The committee had previously rejected a similar proposal by state Rep. Jared Brossett, D-New Orleans, seeking to protect gays from housing discrimination.

Opposition to Smith’s legislation came from the conservative Louisiana Family Forum, which argued only “morally neutral” characteristics deserve protection.

Kathleen Benfield, representing the organization, said characteristics such as race and sex deserve protection.

But she said sexual orientation doesn’t deserve special status because some property owners are religiously opposed to homosexuality.

State Rep. Herbert Dixon, D-Alexandria, disagreed, saying that people have used religion in the past to justify racial discrimination, and that this was no better.

Benfield said using the Bible to condone racial discrimination was irrational.

“But this is rational?” Dixon asked Benfield, referring to discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Smith closed the hearing by paraphrasing Pope Francis about treating all people justly. “We must always consider the person,” she said.

That wasn’t enough to garner votes.

Only Dixon and Reps. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches, and Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette, voted in favor of HB871.

Members opposing the bill were state Reps. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette; Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport; Lance Harris, R-Alexandria; Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville; Kenneth Havard, R-Jackson; Paul Hollis, R-Covington; Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe; Jim Morris, R-Oil City; Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro; Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge; Stephen Pugh, R-Ponchatoula; and Gene Reynolds, D-Minden.

Smith promised that lawmakers would see the bill again: “Thank you members, but I’ll be back next year.”

Meanwhile, House Bill 199, seeking to protect gays from discrimination by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to a variety of anti-discrimination statutes within Louisiana law, was pulled from consideration in a second House committee by its sponsor, Rep. Austin Badon.

Badon, D-New Orleans, said he plans to return with the bill within two weeks after working with Forum for Equality, a gay rights group.

But he faces a tough battle for passage because a series of measures seeking to extend more protections to gays in Louisiana have failed to win support so far in the legislative session.

“Good legislation takes a while to pass,” he said.

Badon said he will reach out to committee members to address any concerns with the proposal, which would protect gays from discrimination in housing, employment, education and health services, among other areas.