Inside Report: Sexual orientation laws in state face legislative scrutiny

The military — with the help of an aspiring NFL player — convinced state Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, that it was time to once again test tolerance in the Louisiana Legislature.

Same-sex married couples under the military umbrella can receive federal benefits, including health care, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act last summer.

Louisiana resisted the new edict but complied after finding comfort in a compromise. A federal employee — rather than a member of the state’s military workforce — will hand the necessary identification cards to same-sex spouses.

Another recent headline has less to do with Louisiana and more to do with shattering glass ceilings. In early February, former University of Missouri football player Michael Sam announced he was entering the NFL draft. Sam, an All-American with a Cotton Bowl win in his trophy case, is grasping for the brass ring of the pros. He also is openly gay. No active NFL player has ever publicly acknowledged that he is homosexual.

It’s against this evolving backdrop that St. Germain brings House Bill 887, which would make it unlawful to refuse to hire, discharge or discriminate because of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

Make no mistake: Marriage in Louisiana still would be a union between a man and a woman. St. Germain’s bill attempts to make it easier for Ellen DeGeneres to get a job in Louisiana, should her prospective employer realize that, yep, she’s gay.

“I’m just trying to make it where we act a lot more Christian in what we do,” St. Germain said.

State Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Shreveport, also attempted to tinker with employment law in the upcoming legislative session. He quickly thought better of it.

Peacock filed Senate Bill 485 to make employment standards and conditions uniform in Louisiana. Cities and parishes would be unable to adopt different standards and conditions.

Equality Louisiana — a statewide coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups — characterized Peacock’s legislation as a backdoor bigotry bill.

The group said the proposal would “prohibit local governments from enacting better local employment nondiscrimination policies than the ones we currently have on state level.”

A campaign of phone calls, emails and tweets convinced Peacock to scrap his legislation.

Peacock said he wanted to create a more business-friendly climate, not undermine New Orleans and Shreveport, which prohibit discrimination against gay people on where they work and live.

“It is something that was not my intention. That’s not my nature, and it was being determined that it was something else,” Peacock said.

St. Germain hopes the tide is turning in Louisiana. The fact that she filed the bill could be significant in itself.

Usually, it’s the urban legislators who lead the charge for a more tolerant outlook on homosexuality, and they’re usually soundly defeated.

And, certainly, the urban contingent is diligently filing bills this year. State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, wants to repeal the crime against nature law from Louisiana’s books. State Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, wants to tack sexual orientation and gender identity onto a number of anti-discrimination provisions.

St. Germain lives in Pierre Part, a Cajun community more famous for a sinkhole than big-city ideas about diversity.

“I don’t know if the time is right in Louisiana. It’s time to take the temperature,” she said.

St. Germain is unlikely to find smooth sailing. Gov. Bobby Jindal may be busy denouncing President Obama on the economy, but he still is staunchly in favor of the traditional family. Louisiana did backflips to find a way to comply with the federal benefits for same-sex military couples without leaving any fingerprints.

Gene Mills, who heads the Louisiana Family Forum, thinks St. Germain should put away her thermometer. The Louisiana Family Forum is a major political force among conservatives in state politics.

“I personally believe there’s a zero possibility that any measure that is considered part of a homosexual agenda would pass this Legislature and be signed into law. So if Karen is taking the temperature, I think she’s going to find it’s very cool,” Mills said.

Michelle Millhollon covers the Governor’s Office for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. Her email address is mmillhollon@theadvocate.com.