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
— 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
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— Ian Bohen (@IanBohen) April 5, 2016
— Alec Mapa (@AlecMapa) April 5, 2016
— 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.
— Andy Szekeres (@AndySzekeres) April 5, 2016
— DebKel (@DebKel01) April 5, 2016