La. Senate committee kills Pastor Protection Act

La. Senate committee kills Pastor Protection Act

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A Senate committee killed a "religious freedom" bill aimed at creating new protections for members of the clergy, citing concerns that it was potentially discriminatory and too broad.

With a vote of 3-2, the Senate Judiciary Committee elected to involuntarily defer HB 597, also known as the Pastor Protection Act.

"As sexual liberty is elevated, we don't want religious liberty to take a back seat and be pushed off the cliff," said Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, who sponsored the bill.

The bill would protect church leaders from civil or criminal action if they refuse to marry same-sex couples. Johnson introduced the bill after last year's Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide.

He said he feared that members of clergy could be persecuted for performing a same-sex wedding, but could not cite an in-state example of that happening when asked by the Senate panel. Still, some local church leaders said they needed this as a preventative measure.

"My plea to you all is, please afford us the opportunity that we might not get there," said Lewis Richerson, the pastor at Woodlawn Baptist Church in Baton Rouge.

The bill received pushback, particularly from senators from New Orleans who worried it is discriminatory against members of the LGBT community. Representatives from Louisiana's LGBT community echoed similar concerns both in committee and in a recent interview.

"You should never put discrimination in law, and I feel like when I look at your bill we're putting discrimination in law," said Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans.

Morrell also expressed worry that the proposed measure was too broad in its scope and applied to more than just pastors but other members of the church community, including the organist or janitor.

"This is not the 'Pastor Protection Act.' It is the 'Anybody who happens to be employed by a church protection act,'" " Morrell said.

Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, indicated that the bill is redundant because of other religious protections already on the books in Louisiana.

"Louisiana does not impede into people's religious freedom. You are doing something in this bill that's unnecessary," Peterson said.

Meanwhile, Stephen Perry, the head of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, testified against the bill. He pointed toward the recent controversy over a different piece of religious freedom legislation in Georgia that inspired some companies to threaten to leave the state. He told lawmakers he feared the Pastor Protection Act could cost Louisiana millions.

"We're in negotiations with corporations and associations all over the United States right now who are watching this and are very concerned," Perry said.

Johnson objected, telling lawmakers that his bill was far more "narrow" in scope than the Georgia bill.

Johnson said he is unsure whether he will be bringing the bill again during the 2017 legislative session. Johnson is currently mounting a campaign for the U.S. Congress and said he is unsure if he will actually be at the State Capitol next year.

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