Mississippi Passes Anti-LGBT Religious Freedom Law Placing Business Relationships at Risk

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Mississippi State Flag / Stuart Seeger

April 5, 2016; Washington Post

A week after Georgia governor Nathan Deal vetoed similar legislation, Mississippi governor Phil Bryant signed into law a “religious freedom” bill on Tuesday that would allow businesses to refuse to serve gay couples or transgender people on the grounds that doing so may violate the owners’ religious backgrounds. Following Indiana’s passage of its Religious Freedom Restoration Act last year (not to be confused with the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993) and North Carolina’s slightly different anti-discrimination law in March, Mississippi is joining a list of states that will be risking financial sanction from business for their attitudes toward gay and transgender individuals.

According to the bill, the law is meant to protect “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.” However, more specifically, the bill ensures that the state government cannot discriminate against any religious organization if it holds three very particular religious beliefs: “Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman,” “Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage,” and “Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at the time of birth.” For example, if a business owner believes that marriage is between a man and a woman, he or she would be justified under this law to refuse service to two males, two females who are romantically involved, or a transgender individual.

In a message on Twitter, Bryant utilizes the language of the bill and says the law will “protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions of individuals, organizations and private associations from discriminatory action.”

I have signed House Bill 1523. Full statement: pic.twitter.com/00DbgQADFt

— Phil Bryant (@PhilBryantMS) April 5, 2016

The bill also bars the state from taking action against businesses that refuse housing, adoption and foster care, and marriage licenses to gay and transgender individuals. Although it’s actually already legal to discriminate in Mississippi against LGBT individuals seeking housing or employment, the bill also delineates specific wedding services that can be declined to individuals that violate said sincere religious beliefs, including photography, wedding planning, floral arrangements, cake or pastry, and jewelry sales. As is clear from the bill, the law is evidently a reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage last year.

“In the wake of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision, many Mississippians, including pastors, wanted protection to exercise their religious liberties,” said Tate Reeves, the state’s lieutenant governor, last week. “This bill simply protects those individuals from government interference when practicing their religious beliefs.”

Unsurprising, after signing the law, Bryant was met with hostility and anger. “This is a sad day for the state of Mississippi and for the thousands of Mississippians who can now be turned away from businesses, refused marriage licenses, or denied housing, essential services and needed care based on who they are,” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi. “This bill flies in the face of the basic American principles of fairness, justice and equality and will not protect anyone’s religious liberty.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, called the bill a “regressive anti-LGBT law” in a statement:

If Gov. Bryant listened to the stories of Mississippians fired from jobs, refused service, and shunned from their families, then perhaps he might have a sense of why bills like HB 1523 devastate LGBT people and their families.

The law’s passage comes the same day as PayPal cancelled a $3.6 million investment in North Carolina following its anti-discrimination law, which made it illegal to pass ordinances that banned discrimination against LGBT individuals. PayPal is piggybacking on the 90 or so other businesses and executives that have publically denounced North Carolina and the law, including Apple, Google and Bank of America.

As always, the backlash was swift on social media as well.

Freedom means you can do whatever you want.

Except in #Mississippi where it means you can deny anyone you don’t like their Freedom.

— John (@linnyitssn) April 5, 2016

If you place your religious beliefs above rule of law (Constitution) you shouldn’t work in a govt. job @PhilBryantMS #Mississippi

— Pyrophore (@pyrophore) April 5, 2016

#Mississippi‘s Bill 1523 is appropriately named, given that its proponents’ understanding of the world hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages.

— Michael Karanicolas (@M_Karanicolas) April 5, 2016

Shame on #Mississippi and @PhilBryantMS. Equal rights for ALL. #LGBTQ

— Ian Bohen (@IanBohen) April 5, 2016

#Mississippi chooses discrimination again. I’m guessing the wrong side of history is your happy place. https://t.co/AKCIYBUBJV

— Alec Mapa (@AlecMapa) April 5, 2016

@PhilBryantMS has signed #HB1523 he has chosen Mississippi’s dark past over a bright future. #ShameOnPhil pic.twitter.com/N89UtpqJrd

— Montel Williams (@Montel_Williams) April 5, 2016

Congrats #Mississippi on setting yourselves back 60 years.

— Lachlan Buchanan (@lachlanbuchanan) April 5, 2016

Why does religious freedom always mean limiting someone else’s freedom? #Mississippi

— DarlingEbony (@DarlingEbony) April 5, 2016

While there’s no doubt there will be a strong reaction following this law, as we have seen with Indiana and North Carolina, it’s important to understand that twenty states already have similar legislation in place, and it’s already legal to discriminate against LGBT individuals in the majority of states, as they don’t have any protections in place. While public pressure vilified Indiana and encouraged Georgia to veto its own religious freedom legislation, the same activism and advocacy can and must be focused on Mississippi to overturn this law and pressure other states to pass protections for LGBT individuals. Currently, in Mississippi’s neighbors Alabama, Texas, and Arkansas, gay individuals may be able to get married, but they can also be evicted from their homes immediately afterward.

As already seen in North Carolina, Mississippi can be made to understand exactly how hurtful this law will be—not only to its state’s citizens, but possibly its economy as well. Businesses such as Nissan, a major employer in the state, will have to answer for their investments in Mississippi and put their rhetoric into effect.

.@NissanUSA do you and your 6,300 employees condone the anti #LGBT Bill signed by @PhilBryantMS in #Mississippi pic.twitter.com/vykebxVK9a

— Andy Szekeres (@AndySzekeres) April 5, 2016

@NissanUSA As MS largest corporate employer what plan do you have to protect your workforce from the discriminatory HB1523 now? #shameOnPhil

— DebKel (@DebKel01) April 5, 2016

—Shafaq Hasan

  • Jim Cross

    The article you link to quoting Sara Kate Ellis fails to cite examples of firings and refusals. Those stories ought to be told, because people who seek to live peaceably should not suffer discrimination, and rarely do. Yet, those who promote their sexual liberty as a hill to die on will meet opposition from their neighbors who simply disagree and do not want to be a part of it.

    It is a seriously tragic development in our civil discourse that declining to participate is perceived as hatred and bigotry. The right of conscience is a sacred right, and is the foundation of all others. No free person should be compelled to enter into transactions in a manner that violates sincerely held beliefs. That is what the law addresses.

    The crime that conscientious objectors are guilty of is failing to recognize and respect the new social order. Declining to participate means that you don’t render legitimacy to the actions of those you disagree with. The religious dissenters must be punished and shamed. They have violated the new ethical code and must be subjected to unmerciful moral crusades on social media.

    The Mississippi law is not anti-LGBT. It is an anti-bullying.