04/12/2012

Louisiana Legislators Should Oppose Discriminatory Bill

The Southern Poverty Law Center urged Louisiana lawmakers to oppose a bill that bans state contracts from providing anti-discrimination protections to vulnerable populations that include LGBT people and English language learners – provisions that threaten to stifle economic growth and harm the state’s school children.

The SPLC outlined its concerns with the Senate bill, SB 217, in a letter sent to state legislators today. It includes the following concerns:

 

  • Sponsors and supporters of SB 217 have admitted that one of the intents of the bill is to ensure that anti-discrimination protections are not extended to LGBT people. Yet, 93 percent of all Fortune 500 companies provide anti-discrimination protections to LGBT people. This bill creates over-regulation that makes businesses flee and critical state contracts difficult to award.

  • By passing SB 217 and sending a message that Louisiana is not open for business to all, Louisiana opens itself to potential boycotts that can damage its tourism industry.

  • SB 217 puts children at risk and creates barriers to education reform by stripping away explicit protections for LGBT students and staff. Charter schools may look elsewhere when attempting to expand their schools.

  • The bill will spawn expensive and needless legal challenges for Louisiana and its contractors. This legislation will lead to violations of clearly established federal law. Also, civil rights laws require public schools – including the state’s charter schools – to provide English language learner students with equal educational opportunities.

 

Complete text of the letter is below.

 


 

Dear Members of the Louisiana Legislature:

Our economy is still reeling from the effects of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina and the B.P. Oil spill. And so many ordinary Louisianans are struggling to feed their families and to find meaningful work. At the same time, the eyes of the nation are watching as New Orleans education reform experiments are poised to spread throughout our state—held out as bringing the promise of a high quality publically-funded education to every child—regardless of where he or she might live. Passing legislation that ensures our children are educated and their parents have jobs are two of the most important functions of the state legislature. Unfortunately, Senate Bill 217 threatens to undermine any progress Louisiana might make in terms of economic development and education reform. Any lawmaker who cares about creating jobs and providing a better future for our children must vote against this bill.

Senate Bill 217 sanctions discrimination and injects the government into the business affairs of state contractors in a shockingly inappropriate way. The Bill prohibits state contracts from providing anti-discrimination protections to vulnerable populations, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (“LGBT”) people and English language learners. The bill is not only mean-spirited, but creates considerable confusion about the legal obligations of state contractors including public charter schools and other state contractors that provide essential services to Louisiana taxpayers. This Bill threatens the future of Louisiana in the following ways:

Senate Bill 217 Stifles Economic Growth. The sponsors and supporters of this legislation have admitted that one of the intents of the bill is ensure that anti-discrimination protections are not extended to LGBT people. Yet, ninety-three percent of all Fortune 500 companies provide anti- discrimination protections to LGBT people—including Louisiana-based company (and state contractor) Entergy. These companies have determined that providing these protections makes good business sense—and in many instances—is required under the law. Senate Bill 217 is the kind of over-regulation that makes businesses flee and critical state contracts difficult to award.

Given that the bill explicitly targets the LGBT community for discriminatory purposes and that one of Louisiana’s prime economic industries is tourism, the state should brace itself for potential boycotts. The Bill certainly sends the message that the state of Louisiana is NOT open for business to all and as a result, upon this Bill’s passage, we are likely to lose individual tourists, conventions and other much needed opportunities to earn tax revenue.

Similarly, the Bill gives the incorrect impression that privately operated public schools may lawfully turn away students who have limited English proficiency. Most likely these students would be the children of immigrants who work in construction, agriculture, and the fishing industry. States around the deep south have learned that anti-immigrant measures cost local economies dearly. Our neighbors in Alabama have crops rotting in the fields because of the anti- immigrant policies adopted there. Louisiana cannot afford such a costly mistake.

Senate Bill 217 puts our children at risk and creates barriers to education reform. Charter school operators have flocked to Louisiana because our state gives them the autonomy to run their schools. In exchange these schools are supposed to produce high achieving students without state interference. Many Louisiana schools clearly believe that in order to provide a safe learning environment, students must be protected from bullying and discrimination based on actual or perceived LGBT status. This should come as no surprise given the epidemic of bullying that has spread across the nation’s schools—and the tragic deaths by suicide that have resulted. Some of the youth who experienced this bullying were in fact gay. Others were merely perceived to be gay because of the music they listened to or the clothes they wore. Schools can face a tremendous amount of legal liability for failing to protect students from a known harm—including bullying on the basis of sexual orientation. SB 217 will strip away explicit protections for LGBT students and staff—increasing the likelihood the next bullying-related suicide will be a school child in Louisiana. Given the charter schools’ negative reaction to this bill, it is possible that innovative school operators with a national presence will look elsewhere when attempting to expand their schools.

Senate Bill 217 will spawn expensive and needless legal challenges for the state and its contractors. Simply put, SB 217 will lead to violations of clearly established federal law. Under civil rights laws, including the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution, LGBT people are protected from discrimination that is meted out by a government actor. See Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996) (holding that state law repealing protections against sexual orientation discrimination violated equal protection). Similarly, civil rights laws require public schools – including the state’s charter schools – to provide English language learner students with equal educational opportunities. Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974). The state will also be subject to lawsuits for contracting with entities that engage in unlawful discrimination. See Norwood v. Harrison, 413 U.S. 455 (1973) (holding that a state may not provide financial assistance to entities if doing so would have a “significant tendency to facilitate, reinforce, and support private discrimination.”) If this bill passes, civil rights organizations will not allow these violations to go unchallenged. This bill is guaranteed to cost Louisiana taxpayers significant legal fees.

 

The Louisiana legislature must focus on the real challenges of job creation and improving our educational system. Given all we have endured over the past years, we simply cannot afford another step backwards. And Senate Bill 217 is clearly a step backwards and a threat to the future of our state.

Very truly yours,

Katie Schwartzmann
Managing Attorney, Louisiana office
Southern Poverty Law Center

Christine P. Sun
Director, LGBT Rights Project
Southern Poverty Law Center