April 1, 2016 at 12:01 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Mississippi ‘religious freedom’ bill heads to governor’s desk
Mississippi, Phil Bryant, gay news, Washington Blade

Gov. Phil Bryant (R-Miss.) is expected to sign “religious freedom” legislation into law. (Photo public domain)

The Mississippi legislature has approved a “religious freedom” bill seen to enable sweeping anti-LGBT discrimination in the state, leaving a signature from Gov. Phil Bryant the last hurdle before the measure becomes law.

Although the House initially approved the legislation in March, the Senate last week passed a slightly version of the bill, so the House needed vote on the amended version.

On Friday, the House approved the measure 69-45, but the show wasn’t over yet. House Democrats entered a motion to reconsider the bill after the chamber voted on the bill itself. However, the motion to reconsider was tabled on Monday, allowing the bill to proceed to Bryant’s desk.

Titled the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” HB 1523 is seen to allow sweeping anti-LGBT discrimination in the name of “religious freedom.”

The legislation prohibits the state from taking action against religious organizations who decline employment, housing or services to same-sex couples; families who’ve adopted a foster child and wish to act in opposition to same-sex marriage; individuals who offer wedding services and decline to facilitate a same-sex wedding. Additionally, the bill allows individuals working in medical services to decline to afford a transgender person gender reassignment surgery.

The bill also allows state government employees who facilitate marriage the option to opt out of issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but the person must issue prior written notice to the state government and a clerk’s office must not delay in the issuing of licenses.

Critics say HB 1523 would allow discrimination against single mothers, same-sex couples and their families, transgender people, and children, such as denying them housing in homeless shelters, important medical care, or employment. Moreover, critics say the bill would authorize conversion therapy for LGBT young people in foster care.

Mississippi has no state law against anti-LGBT discrimination that the “religious freedom” bill would compromise, nor does any municipality in the state have an ordinance against anti-LGBT bias, so the discrimination afforded under HB 1523 is already legal under state law. The measure could undermine a future state law or city ordinance prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination.

Clay Chandler, a Bryant spokesperson, was non-committal in response to an inquiry from the Washington Blade on whether the governor would sign HB 1523 when it reaches his desk.

“Gov. Bryant will thoroughly review the bill before making a decision,” Chandler said.

But Bryant is widely expected to sign the bill based on his previously stated support for the measure and denial it enables anti-LGBT discrimination.

“I don’t think it’s discriminatory,” Bryant is quoted as saying in Mississippi News Now. “I think it gives some people as I appreciate it, the right to be able to say that’s against my religious beliefs and I don’t need to carry out that particular task.”

In 2014, Bryant already signed into law “religious freedom” legislation seen to have enable anti-LGBT discrimination, but the pending litigation is seen to open up the state to expanded discrimination against LGBT people.

Jody Owens, managing attorney in Mississippi at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a statement HB 1523 is “an outrage” and called on Bryant to veto the bill.

“Discrimination masking as ‘religious freedom” is still discrimination,” Owens said. “Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant should follow Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s lead and veto this toxic legislation. Enough is enough.”

Already companies doing businesses in Mississippi have spoken out against the bill, including Nissan, Toyota, Tyson Foods and Levi Strauss. Also making his opposition known is Mississippi former N*SYNC signer Lance Bass, who came out as gay in 2006.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement Bryant should follow the lead of other governors faced with making a decision on anti-LGBT legislation and veto HB 1523.

“We call on Gov. Bryant to veto this discriminatory and deplorable bill, that would put his own constituents at risk of harassment and discrimination where they work, in their schools and in their communities,” Griffin said. “Gov. Bryant has a clear choice — and if he wants to lead his state forward, he should follow the example of Republican Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who understood that discrimination in any form is unacceptable.”

The Mississippi legislature sends HB 1523 to Bryant the day after a federal court ruled the state’s ban on adoption by same-sex couples is unconstitutional in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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