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​Mississippi Legislature passes bill allowing legal discrimination on basis of religion

Published time: April 03, 2014 02:44
Edited time: April 04, 2014 11:56
Mississippi State Flag (Photo by Ken Lund / flickr.com)

Mississippi State Flag (Photo by Ken Lund / flickr.com)

The Mississippi Legislature passed a bill on Tuesday that would allow individuals and businesses to legally discriminate on the basis of their religion.

The state House and Senate approved a conference report on SB 2681, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, despite previous indications from the House that its version of the bill was on hold based on objections about the implications for discrimination.

The bill was passed by a vote of 78-43 in the House and 38-14 in the Senate. Both are dominated by Republicans.

The bill’s fate is now up to Gov. Phil Bryant (R), who has not said whether he will sign the legislation. If he does, the bill will go into effect on July 1.

Mississippi law defines a “person” to include “all public and private corporations,” ThinkProgress noted. So if the bill becomes law, it would allow businesses in the state to discriminate for religious reasons.

Though the bill does not mention sexual orientation, “gay,” or gender identity, LGBT advocates see the legislation as an attempt to alienate non-straight communities.

“Before Mississippi has had the opportunity to robustly discuss the lived experiences of LGBT people, this bill would hollow out any non-discrimination protections at the local level or possible future state-wide protections,” Sarah Warbelow, Human Rights Campaign’s state legislative director, told the Washington Blade. “Just as we’ve seen in other states, this bill is bad for business, bad for the state’s reputation, and most of all, bad for Mississippians. Gov. Bryant must veto the measure.”

Mississippi does not have state or local nondiscrimination protections for LGBT persons. Human Rights Campaign said the bill could further complicate any effort at future state nondiscrimination laws, undermine licensing organizations that offer protections to LGBT individuals, and undercut public university nondiscrimination policies.

An attempt to pass a “religious liberty” bill in Arizona failed in February, when Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a proposal passed by the state legislature. Similar bills in Georgia, Idaho, Maine, and Ohio have failed, though some are still pending in Missouri and Oklahoma.

Proponents of such bills said they do not promote discriminatory behavior, yet in their support, they have offered examples of wedding photographers and bakers that have refused service to same-sex couples around the country. Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins lauded the Mississippi Legislature’s moves on the bill, saying it would protect “a wedding vendor, whose orthodox Christian faith will not allow her to affirm same-sex ‘marriage.’”

Perkins said the law hews closely to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, supported by Democrats and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton.

“This is a victory for the First Amendment and the right to live and work according to one’s conscience,” Perkins said. “This commonsense measure was a no-brainer for freedom, and like the federal RFRA, it simply bars government discrimination against religious exercise. The legislature gave strong approval to a bill that declares that individuals do not have to trade their religious freedom for entrance into public commerce.”

Morgan Miller of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi said comparisons to RFRA are misguided.

“This bill still could open the door for someone who wants to use their religion to discriminate against others,” Miller said. “It exposes virtually every branch and office of the government to litigation; our state will have to spend taxpayer money to defend lawsuits. It’s unnecessary: the Mississippi legislature has been unable to articulate why this law is needed in our state.”