Why Bobby Jindal pushes religious freedom over same-sex marriage

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a religious freedom executive order Tuesday – hours after the House voted similar legislation down. What's behind this move?

Rainier Ehrhardt/AP/file
In this May 9, 2015, file photo, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks at the Freedom Summit in Greenville, S.C.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed an executive order Tuesday putting part of a “Marriage and Conscience Act” into law after the Louisiana House voted against similar legislation.

By siding with conservative Christians, Governor Jindal, a Republican, appears to be bucking public opinion trends supporting same-sex marriage. And he also may be positioning himself for a 2016 presidential run.

Twenty-one states have passed their own versions of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. Controversy erupted in March, after Indiana’s legislature passed a version of an RFRA that critics said would have allowed discrimination against same-sex couples in the state. The legislature ultimately reworked the bill after businesses, as well as states and some cities, said they would boycott Indiana. In April, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson refused to sign an RFRA until state lawmakers reworked it to make it similar to the 1993 federal RFRA signed into law by then-President Clinton and added language to protect against discrimination.

Governor Jindal's move is the latest in a growing debate between religious freedom activists and same-sex marriage supporters. The Supreme Court is expected to decide the legality of same-sex marriage by the end of its term in June. Currently, same-sex couples can wed in 37 states.

According to Jindal, the Louisiana act will “prohibit the state from denying or revoking a tax exemption, tax deduction, contract, cooperative agreement, loan, professional license, certification, accreditation, or employment on the basis the person acts in accordance with a religious belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.” 

Critics say Jindal is simply allowing discrimination.

Stephen Perry, a critic of Jindal's executive order and head of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that the bill “will not stand the tests of time or law.” Mr. Perry has also said that the executive order has little substantive power and is “largely a political statement.”

In fact, the order will remain in effect until 60 days after the current legislative session ends, according to Nola.com, and the next governor can repeal it once taking office in January, if he or she so chooses.

In a recent Gallup poll, 60 percent of those polled said that they supported same-sex marriage. However, a January poll done by the Associated Press found that 57 percent of those polled believed that wedding-related businesses with religious objections should be allowed to refuse service to same-sex couples.

These percentages suggest that many who believe in freedom for same-sex couples to wed also believe in allowing religious accommodations for those whose faith does not support same-sex marriage.

"We don't support discrimination in Louisiana and we do support religious liberty," he said, as Politico reported. "these two values can be upheld at the same time." 

Indiana faced a corporate backlash against its RFRA, with everyone from Angie's List to NASCAR weighing in against the original version of the law, but Jindal seemed unconcered about any potential fallout for the business community.

"As the fight for religious liberty moves to Louisiana, I have a clear message for any corporation that contemplates bullying our state: Save your breath," he wrote in a New York Times opinion piece

It may not have been a coincidence that Jindal formed a presidential exploratory committee this week, and if he runs, will likely need to articulate his position on same-sex marriage in a crowded field of Republican contenders. And many of those conservatives are staking out a similar position, which may play well with Republican voters in the 2016 presidential primaries.

The latest Gallup poll also shows that those who are opposed to gay marriage are a good deal more likely to say that a candidate's stance on the issue can make or break whether that candidate receives their vote (37 percent) than those who are supportive of gay marriage (21 percent). And both are more likely to say the issue is a defining factor than they have been in 2008 and 2004.

GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz, told Iowa conservatives that "religious liberty is not some fringe view", following the passage of Indiana's RFRA.

Marco Rubio responded similarly, saying that "I think people have a right to live out their religious faith in their own lives," as NPR reported.

CNN reports that Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said GOP presidential candidates had better be ready to address what he called an "increasing threat" on religious liberty.

"Somebody needs to call a spade a spade and call it for what it is, and if they're offended, so be it," Scheffler said. "They need to address the religious liberty issue when they come to Iowa."

[Correction: This story has been updated to correct the passage of Arkansas's RFRA in April, as well as reflect the fact that Indiana amended its RFRA after outcry from businesses and same-sex marriage supporters.]

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