Louisiana Considers 'Religious Freedom' Law, NOLA CVB Speaks Out

After firestorms in Indiana and Arkansas, next in line to consider passing its own "Religious Freedom" bill appears to be Louisiana, where the state legislature currently is considering a measure that would allow private companies to refuse extending to same-sex married couples the same benefits to which other married couples are legally entitled, on the basis of a religious objection.

The bill was introduced last week by State Rep. Mike Johnson (R-Bossier City), who has responded to criticism this week by promising to strike from the bill the controversial language that would have allowed employers to deny same-sex couples benefits, which he said was misinterpreted.

"Rather than try to modify the wording, I've decided it will be best to simply eliminate that paragraph entirely to avoid any further confusion. This bill is a good faith effort to protect the right of conscience for ALL Louisiana citizens, and we want to ensure its language accurately reflects that," Johnson said in a statement.

Even without the language in question, the bill concerns LGBT advocates, who object to provisions that would prohibit the state from denying business owners certain tax benefits, business licenses, and government contracts based on their views about marriage, allowing private businesses to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage even if it becomes legal in Louisiana.

Among the bill's supporters is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Among its critics, however, is Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, who called on Johnson this week to not just modify his bill, but to throw it out entirely.

"The adoption of certain types of overreaching, problematic, and divisive legislation in Louisiana has the possibility of threatening our state's third largest industry and creating economic losses pushing past $1 billion dollars a year and costing us tens of thousands of jobs," Perry said in a lengthy and passionate written statement.

Following is Perry's statement in its entirety:

"There has been much news coverage and business discussion in the past week regarding legislation affecting religious freedom and such legislation's potential ancillary effects relating to discrimination. The issue involves elements of perception and substance and has many nuances … subtleties that provoke strong reactions on all sides of the issues raised. The issue has pushed all parties out of their comfort zones. But, it has also become a powerful issue relating to American business and the nearly $1 trillion American travel industry that serves in part as a cornerstone and foundation of international and national commerce.

This statement deals with two elements in particular. The laws originally proposed elsewhere and the potential legislation proposed in Louisiana which are far narrower in application than laws proposed elsewhere.

The New Orleans tourism and hospitality industry, represented by the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, its trade organization, drives nearly $7 billion of new capital each year into New Orleans and Louisiana and creates hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue to state and local government. We operate offices in four U.S. cities and five foreign nations, as we market New Orleans, in partnership with other organizations such as the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, as a premier world destination for corporate and association meetings and conventions, domestic and international leisure travel, special and sporting events, and festivals and cultural travel. This industry employs roughly 80,000 people in the New Orleans area. It is the cultural core and most powerful economic driver of this unique American city.

Our hospitality industry, like those in all other destinations, is extremely sensitive to perception and proper imagery and presentation as to not only our cultural product and attractions, but our attitudes and hospitality beliefs and welcoming standards.

We saw and closely monitored the extremely adverse reaction to the proposed Indiana and Arkansas laws by small, medium and Fortune 500 companies, other American municipalities and states, sporting organizations, non-profits and economic development concerns. The economic future of Indianapolis as a destination was severely threatened.

In a similar vein, New Orleans is more dependent than either Indianapolis or the state of Arkansas on its tourism, hospitality and cultural economy in terms of employment, industry size, and tax revenues generated. Thus, we are extremely sensitive and engaged on these issues. We have much at stake.

The adoption of certain types of overreaching, problematic and divisive legislation in Louisiana has the possibility of threatening our state's third largest industry and creating economic losses pushing past a billion dollars a year and costing us tens of thousands of jobs. Thus, we will be monitoring all legislation filed this year with an eye to economic security and to ensuring that Louisiana presents an image to the nation and the world that reflects open, progressive principles of tolerance and non-discrimination. The legislative process is a dynamic changing process, amendments are frequent and plentiful, and the tone and substance of bills change often throughout the session.

Thus, we will not go into detail about individual pieces of legislation at this moment, but will comment and engage as the bills are actually presented and heard. Legislative authors have already publicly commented about limiting the scope of their legislation as originally envisioned. We are hopeful, however, that all potentially harmful legislation will either not be advanced, or will be substantially modified in a manner that preserves both faith and a non-discriminatory approach to the marketplace.

New Orleans is a city deeply rooted in faith as one of America's most Catholic, but also most diverse cities religiously, racially, and culturally. It is also a city renowned for its multicultural nature, and its deep commitment to almost limitless tolerance and differing viewpoints.

Our principles are as follows ... We are deeply committed to and appreciative of our religious freedom, and, in fact, we demand and expect those rights. We also believe that some legislation has been circulated in our nation that seeks to establish a right to discriminate in the marketplace under an otherwise well intended cloak of religious freedom. We feel that is morally and economically wrong.

As an industry, as thousands of small, medium and large corporations, as tens of thousands of employees and workers … we stand against discrimination in every form, but especially as to race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and political beliefs, while maintaining our commitment to religious freedom. We expect and work every day toward both principles living in harmony in New Orleans.

The very nature of the name of our industry, hospitality, reflects our principles. Hospitality invites, it does not divide. Our industry remains committed to making every visitor and citizen alike feel welcome and included in every way, throughout New Orleans. Travel, at its very essence, is experiencing new things, new cultures, new ways of thinking, different viewpoints … getting a new look at life and appreciating the differences that in fact unite, not divide us. It is getting out of our own skin sometimes and enjoying something different. Differences and experiences are exhilarating … that is often why we seek out new leisure travel destinations so fervently.

Our nation is built and operates upon the belief that we are all entitled to certain inalienable rights and to equality under the law. Refusing goods and services to anyone, or discriminating against others under the cloak of religious freedom tramples on these inalienable rights. It could well open a Pandora's Box of exceptions that would comprise a slippery slope to a divided society.

Our society is one of laws that must protect the secular civil rights of everyone. The same laws that protect religious freedom should also protect against discrimination. No law should provide anyone the right to discriminate. That is antithetical to the civil rights and equal treatment under the law secured by our Constitution. A society of harmony, respect, civil rights and equality demands that we live with our differences and respect and love our neighbor, though they and their beliefs be different than our own.

Because of our differing religious beliefs, our different races and cultures and traditions, every day lived means we will engage and have commercial and human transactions and interactions in our progressively diverse and multicultural society in a manner that takes us out of our personal comfort zone. As we engage in these societal interactions, secular law must provide a dispassionate and non-discriminatory environment and marketplace in which we all may live. That is the ultimate accommodation we all make to ensure the religious freedom of each other.

As the representative of a large group of fiscally conservative business leaders and workers who are responsible for New Orleans' largest and most important industry, I want to clearly state our position. We stand for full civil rights and equal rights under the law in the marketplace for moral, civil rights and economic reasons.

Last year, the New Orleans tourism industry alone hosted 9.5 million visitors from around the world who spent $6.8 billion dollars here. The realities associated with the religious freedom law, most recently played out in Indiana and also Arkansas, demonstrated that embracing a law that allows any discrimination, for whatever reason, would have a potentially devastating effect on a state's economy, directing billions of dollars of business and spending away and costing thousands of jobs. In addition, the negative reputation our state would suffer due to the perception of allowing discrimination in any way against any citizen would certainly have a chilling effect on future investment here at a time when new business growth and interest in further capital investments have been trending in a positive way.

We feel strongly that current law in Louisiana provides overwhelming and powerful protections of religious freedom. We urge that further debate and new legislation be tabled for now because of the huge and needless damage this could inflict on our brand and to an industry and destination city that each have a world-wide reputation as being welcoming, diverse, inclusive and exceptionally tolerant. Legislation that could be construed or misconstrued to invite discrimination and intolerance is bad for our economy, our business environment, our citizens and workers, and our very soul.

Discrimination is the antithesis of hospitality. Hospitality invites. It does not divide. Our huge industry and our economy depend on it. Therefore, our industry and our city remain committed to making every visitor and citizen alike feel welcome and included in every way and we urge our legislature to table all potentially divisive debates on these religious freedom matters and focus on the budgetary, higher education, healthcare and other pressing crises of our day."

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