Judge puts off ruling in court battle over LGBT-rights protection order

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A decision in the court case between the Louisiana governor and attorney general will not come until at least later this week.

After eight hours of testimony Tuesday, Judge Todd Hernandez asked both sides to submit follow-up written arguments in the case regarding Gov. John Bel Edward's anti-discrimination executive order by Friday.

AG Jeff Landry, a Republican, sued the Democratic governor over the executive order. Signed by the governor in April, it requires that most state contracts include protections for members of the LGBT community.

The governor's office - arguing that the AG was overstepping his authority - asked the judge to define the AG's power in state government.

The AG's office has blocked dozens of legal contracts that contain the clause. No other state agencies or vendors have objected to the executive order, according to Scott Johnson, a lawyer for the Division of Administration.

Before Tuesday's hearing, Landry had called the order unconstitutional and claimed the governor is effectively making state law. Several anti-discrimination bills failed to gain traction at the Capitol in the spring.

"Gov. Edwards has done precisely done the same thing that Gov. Edwards complained that Gov. Jindal did and that is exceed his authority as the chief executive officer," said Elizabeth Murrill, a member of the civil division in the AG's office.

In court Tuesday, however, the AG's office, instead, focused much of its argument on the contents of the executive order itself. The office said it had been blocking contracts specifically due to the protections based on "gender identity" included in the order. One lawyer for the AG even suggested that if the governor agreed to remove those two words from the order, the case could be over and they could all go home.

The AG's legal team called a human resource officer and an attorney to the witness stand who suggested that "gender identity" was an "ambiguous" term that could be burdensome and create legal problems for employers. Matthew Block, special counsel for the governor's office, pointed out that the AG's office has approved other contracts including language that complies with federal executive orders protecting people based on gender identity.

The governor's office has said the AG is simply playing politics and is holding up state work in the process by blocking dozens of contracts from being finalized.

"The grab of authority that the attorney general has done with regards to state contracts and state legal matters is just simply beyond his authority," Block said. "I think the evidence showed that."

Block defended the executive order saying it is "lawful" and "good policy for the state," as it provides protections that do not exist in state law that ensure that employers cannot fire or discriminate against transgender and gay employees.

The implications of the case extend beyond just the feud between the two Louisiana officials, however.

Two weeks ago, the House Appropriations Committee held up contracts for state employee health benefits because of the LGBT protection clause. If those contracts are not approved by the legislature, however, thousands stand to lose their health benefits.

House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said many on the committee had concerns about the "gender identity" part of the order. Speaking in court, Henry said he also felt that approving the contracts with the clause would concede the lawmaking power of the legislature to the executive branch.

Copyright 2016 WAFB. All rights reserved.