BATON ROUGE, La. - Gov. Bobby Jindal on Thursday gave a full-throated defense of a divisive religious objections bill that critics say could sanction discrimination against same-sex couples in Louisiana.
The Republican governor's comments doubling down in support of the legislation came one day after computer giant IBM sent Jindal's office a letter signaling "strong" opposition to the bill.
Jindal, speaking to reporters in a wide-ranging interview, attempted to flip the script on opponents by describing the bill as an anti-discrimination measure designed to protect Christians who are morally opposed to same-sex marriage in an increasingly permissive society.
"Religious liberty is not just about the ability to pray a couple of hours a week," said Jindal, who has presidential ambitions built on an appeal to evangelical Christians and social conservatives. "Religious liberty is about being able to live your life seven days a week according to your beliefs."
The letter from IBM - which has plans for an 800-worker facility in Baton Rouge - cuts into the business-friendly reputation Jindal has sought to cultivate and frequently touts.
"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," wrote James M. Driesse, a senior state executive for the company. "IBM will find it much harder to attract talent to Louisiana if this bill is passed and enacted into law."
As written, the "Marriage and Conscience Act" - a cornerstone of Jindal's legislative agenda - would prohibit the state from denying any resident or business a license, benefits, or tax deductions because of actions taken "in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction" about marriage.
Jindal and the bill's sponsor, Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, say the measure would in no way condone discrimination against LGBT couples. But what exactly the bill would accomplish is the subject of heated debated, with critics and some legal experts arguing the bill would allow discrimination should gay marriage become legal in Louisiana.
When asked how the proposed religious objection law is any different from laws that used to condone discrimination against black people on religious and moral grounds, Jindal said such comparisons were "offensive."
"I personally think it is offensive to compare Catholics, evangelical Christians and others that are trying to obey their teachings, their churches' teachings, their conscience, to racists, to bigots," Jindal said. "I know a lot of people are changing their views on (same-sex marriage), but I think it would be wrong to compare ... them to racists, to bigots."
To illustrate his point, Jindal raised the specter of Christian business owners who were threatened with fines for refusing to participate in gay and lesbian weddings "in New York and ... western states" where same-sex marriage is allowed. Such businesses could include bakers, florists, wedding planners, and photographers.
"These are people who were forced by their state to pay heavy fines or lose their business licenses," he said, though he added that has not happened in Louisiana.
Religious objections laws have recently drawn fierce debate in other states including Indiana and Arkansas, prompting changes to the laws.
Same-sex couples in Louisiana are not allowed to marry under the state constitution, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman, and there are no legal protections from discrimination for gays and lesbians.
But the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to soon rule on a case that could strike down same-sex marriage bans across the country, one reason Johnson's bill was proposed.