The Mississippi legislature approved late Tuesday a “turn away the gays” measure that would enable businesses and individuals in the state to discriminate against or refuse services to LGBT people on religious grounds — making a signature from the governor the last remaining step before the bill becomes law.
In a development that largely went unnoticed on the national stage, the State House and Senate on the same day both approved a conference report for S.B. 2681, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The vote in the Republican-controlled House was 78-43 and the vote in the Republican-controlled Senate vote was 38-14.
Much like the controversial Arizona bill known as SB 1062 vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer, the six-page legislation never once mentions the words “sexual orientation,” “gender identity” or “gay.” Still, LGBT advocates insist the legislation would have the effect of allowing discriminatory practices against LGBT people seeking services in Mississippi.
Sarah Warbelow, the Human Rights Campaign’s state legislative director, said the bill would in essence make “LGBT people strangers to the law.”
“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,” Warbelow said. “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.”
Notably, the measure also contains language modifying the state seal in a way adds to it the words “In God We Trust.” The bill also has language that says nothing in the measure “shall create any rights by an employee against an employer if the employer is not the government,” which is different from the Arizona legislation.
Now that the legislature has approved the bill, the last remaining step before it becomes law is a signature from Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who’s known for his conservative views as chief executive of a state in the Deep South. Still, Brewer has the same reputation, but she vetoed the Arizona bill after pressure from LGBT advocates, businesses, religious groups and faith leaders.
If Bryant signs the bill, it’ll go into effect on July 1. Bryant’s office didn’t immediately respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on whether he’ll sign the legislation.
It should be noted that sexual orientation and gender identity currently aren’t protected under civil rights law in Mississippi. Based on state and federal law, individuals and businesses could refuse services to LGBT people, such as services for a same-sex wedding, without fear of reprisal regardless of whether or not the bill signed into law.
No municipalities in Mississippi have non-discrimination ordinances, although Starkville, Hattiesburg and Oxford have all passed pro-LGBT resolutions.
Still, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the measure could undermine future state non-discrimination laws, interfere with licensing organizations that have professional regulations protecting LGBT individuals and undermine public university non-discrimination policies.
The measure is part of a nationwide trend of “turn away the gay” bills advancing in state legislatures. Including the one vetoed in Arizona, other similar bills in Georgia, Idaho, Maine, and Ohio were rejected. But similar bills are still pending in Missouri and Oklahoma.
The measure advanced through the legislature after the Mississippi House voted last month to strike text related to religious liberty and instead created a study committee on how to pass such a bill in the future. Despite changes made by the House, the conference committee produced a report that advocates say would subject LGBT people to discrimination anyway.
The legislature’s passage of the bill has won praise from at least one anti-gay group, which says the legislation is along the lines of a federal religious exemption law introduced by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and then-Rep. Chuck Schumer before being passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the measure simply ensures religious freedom for individuals and businesses in Mississippi.
“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, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, told the Blade although lawmakers attempted to align the Mississippi bill with federal law, the end result “falls short.”
“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.”