IBM to Louisiana: Mind our business before passing religious freedom bill

Reuters/Nir Elias
Multinational company IBM has written a letter to the governor of Louisiana voicing “strong opposition” to a bill pending in the state legislature that, observers say, could sanction discrimination against same-sex marriages based on religious beliefs.

Similar to legislation recently passed in Indiana and Arkansas, Louisiana’s so-called religious freedom bill -- the 'Marriage and Conscience Act' -- is written to protect business owners who oppose same-sex marriage (because of their religion) from government attempts to negate licenses, tax benefits, and other privileges, The Times-Picayune reported.

Critics say the bill will simply enable one’s religion to justify discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgender people once same-sex marriage is legal in Louisiana. Both Indiana and Arkansas also faced pressure from major corporations to amend their respective laws to avoid potentially discriminatory incidents.

"We are deeply concerned by reports that you intend to support this legislation,” wrote James Driesse, a senior state executive for IBM, to Gov. Bobby Jindal, Senate President John Alario, and House Speaker Charles Kleckley.

“IBM has made significant investments in Louisiana including most recently a technology services delivery center in Baton Rouge, creating new jobs for Louisiana workers.”

Driesse warned that the company would have difficulty attracting top talent should the bill proceed into law.

"A bill that legally protects discrimination based on same-sex marriage status will create a hostile environment for our current and prospective employees, and is antithetical to our company's values.”

Driesse added that IBM is “opposed to discrimination against anyone on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or other protected categories.”

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Jindal responded to Driesse with a letter stating that the IBM executive may be confused as to the intent of the bill, which, he said, is to protect religious beliefs and not to allow discrimination.

"I appreciate the letter, but fear that you are confused about what the bill would accomplish in practice," wrote Jindal. "I believe after understanding what the bill actually does, your fear over the bill will be alleviated."

The bill’s author Rep. Mike Johnson responded as well, seeking to point out that his legislation is not the same as similar bills passed in Indiana and Arkansas.

"There is nothing in our bill that does what the executive suggests, and it seems he is confusing this with recent, unrelated legislation in other states," Johnson said in a statement, according to the Times-Picayune.

"The idea that the government should be prohibited from discriminating against people simply because of their faith has been a foundational principal [sic] of our republic since its founding. It is alarming that any corporate executive would want to oppose that principle today."

By demand of House leadership, Johnson was required to make significant revisions to the legislation's language before the bill was even considered by a legislative committee.

"The intent of this bill has always been clear: to discriminate against the gay and transgender community. That could not have been clearer than the proposed amendments by Rep. Mike Johnson on the floor of the House of Representatives," Sarah Jane Brady, executive director of pro-LGBT group Forum for Equality, wrote in a statement, according to the Times-Picayune.

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Indiana’s religious freedom bill received such widespread condemnation that the state has hired a public relations firm to clean up its image, as RT has reported.

Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed the religious freedom law that would have allowed any individual or corporation to refuse service and cite religious belief as a defense when sued by a private party. National condemnation arose as it was seen that the law would allow businesses to turn away gay and lesbian customers for religious reasons.

Under pressure, condemnation from business organizations such as NASCAR and Apple, and state bans on travel to Indiana, Pence signed a revised measure to clarify the law does not allow businesses to deny good or services to LGBT customers.

In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson altered his stance and refused to sign a religious freedom bill passed by the state legislature after Walmart, which is based in Arkansas, came out in opposition to it. Hutchinson did sign a revised version of the bill that mirrored a federal religious-freedom law.