BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Gov. John Bel Edwards issued an executive order Wednesday that bans discrimination against members of the LGBT community.
"We are fortunate enough to live in a state that is rich with diversity, and we are built on a foundation of unity and fairness for all of our citizens," Edwards said in a statement. "We respect our fellow citizens for their beliefs, but we do not discriminate based on our disagreements."
The order bans discrimination against people who work for Louisiana state government or for state contractors based on sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. It also inhibits discrimination against those who receive state services or benefits.
The gender identity protection is a first for Louisiana.
"Now for the first ever, transgender people in Louisiana have some sort of legal protection statewide. That has literally never happened before," said Matthew Patterson, the managing director of Equality Louisiana, an LGBT rights advocacy group.
Former Governors Edwin Edwards and Kathleen Blanco issued similar executive orders during their time in office. They, however, did not include protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity.
Louisiana does not have a law on the books that protects LGBT workers.
"I believe in giving every Louisianan the opportunity to be successful and to thrive in our state," Edwards said in the statement. "Our goal is to promote the opportunities we have right here in Louisiana. While this executive order respects the religious beliefs of our people, it also signals to the rest of the country that discrimination is not a Louisiana value, but rather, that Louisiana is a state that is respective and inclusive of everyone around us."
For LGBT rights groups, this was a day they had been waiting for.
"This is as exciting for me as the marriage equality victory at the Supreme Court was," Patterson said.
Some businesses also expressed support of the governor's action, including Dow Chemical:
Many objected to the executive action, including Gene Mills, president of the Louisiana Family Forum. In a statement, he referenced the many "religious freedom" bills that have emerged and become law in other states, including Mississippi.
"Ironically, while other states are seeking to protect people of faith, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards seems to be using his executive power to silence those same people of faith," Mills said in a statement.
The administration said there is an exemption in the executive action for churches and religious organizations.
Some lawmakers were also critical of the order, including Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, who said it was not necessary that the governor be involved in this particular provision.
Johnson sponsored last year's controversial Marriage and Conscience Act, which failed in the legislature but later became an executive order signed by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal. The order was in reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage and prevented the state from denying or revoking tax exemptions and deductions, contracts, and employment to individuals who opposed same-sex marriage.
"What we see in the country is a movement to effectively force compliance with these changing morals of society," Johnson said.
In addition to issuing a new executive action, Edwards also rescinded that Jindal-era executive action.
"The previous administration's executive I am rescinding was meant to serve a narrow political agenda," Edwards said in the statement. "It does nothing but divide our state and forced the business community, from Louisiana's smallest businesses to large corporations, like IBM, to strongly oppose it. This executive order threatens Louisiana's business growth, and it goes against everything we stand for - unity, acceptance, and opportunity for all."
Johnson did not like this move, saying he found the Marriage and Conscience order to be limited in scope and did not cause discrimination.
"It was merely about respecting one another's right to believe, which is again the fundamental right that we have," Johnson said.
"We've had the first amendment for several hundred years now, and it works pretty well," said Patterson, who said the Constitution already ensured protections to religious groups.
Despite the order, Patterson indicated that this is just another step forward and there is still a long way to go. The order only applies to government employees and government services. Action by the legislature would be required to make it apply to all state employers and their workers.