JACKSON, Miss. — Mitchell Moore, owner of Campbell’s Bakery in the Fondren neighborhood of Jackson, was at home late on April 1 when he read a Facebook post from a lesbian friend that had a “frantic feel to it.”
The Mississippi House of Representatives in a 79-43 vote had just passed Senate Bill 2681 — the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act — that activists argue would allow businesses to deny services to LGBT people based on their religious beliefs.
The Mississippi Senate quickly followed suit in a late-night vote.
“I was like why would they do this?” Moore told the Washington Blade last week during an interview at his bakery, referring to previous incidents of bakers and photographers who denied services to same-sex couples. “I thought great, I am the only baker in Jackson that does wedding cakes. I was like great; they’re going to pass this bill and then people are going to call me and say ‘hey, are you against gay people getting married? Are you not going to make cakes for gay people now that it’s illegal to do that?’”
Moore decided to launch a Facebook page against SB 2681 even before Gov. Phil Bryant signed it into law during a private ceremony that Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and members of the Mississippi-based American Family Association and other anti-LGBT groups attended on April 3.
“I thought no, I’m not going to have my name and my business attached to anything that I don’t agree with,” said Moore, a straight Republican who is married and has a 2-year-old daughter. “I’m not going to have politicians speak on my behalf. I’m not going to have them take actions that I vehemently disagree with.”
Moore, along with Eddie Outlaw, a gay salon owner who grew up outside Yazoo City in the Mississippi Delta, Joce Pritchett of Jackson and a handful of others soon launched the “We don’t discriminate” campaign that features blue stickers with a thin rainbow band and the slogan “If you’re buying, we’re selling.”
More than 1,000 businesses across the state and around the country have received stickers since the campaign formally launched.
“The message is we don’t discriminate,” said Moore, referring to four Middle Eastern men who purchased a birthday cake and wrote a message on it in Arabic at his bakery after they read about the campaign. “I don’t care if you’re a Muslim. I don’t care if you’re black, I don’t care if you’re gay. I don’t care. You’re my customer. I’m here to sell to everybody. I have a business that’s open to the public.”
Kelly Kyle, a gay lawyer in Ridgeland, a suburb of Jackson, also launched a Facebook group called Mississippians Against Discrimination of Any Kind when he first heard about SB 2681.
He told the Blade during a Thursday interview at his office that the only thing he and others knew about the measure was that it sought to add “In God We Trust” into the state seal.
“We just feel it is leaving the door open to discrimination,” said Kyle. “Frankly the bill was unnecessary in the first place. There is no protection for community to begin with. They’re adding something on top of that that really wasn’t necessary in the first place.”
Law embodies what Old South ‘stood for’
The fight against SB 2681, which took effect on July 1, continues to galvanize LGBT rights advocates across the state.
Members of the Dandelion Project, an LGBT support group in Laurel, protested the measure on the steps of the State Capitol. They also worked with Moore and others who launched the “We don’t discriminate” campaign.
Some students at the University of Mississippi wore “We don’t discriminate” stickers and rainbow-colored socks as a way to protest Bryant’s decision to sign SB 2681 during their commencement ceremony in May at which he spoke.
“It wasn’t an in your face, let me shut down your speech kind of protest,” Outlaw told the Blade during an interview at the Jackson hair salon he co-owns with his husband whom he married in California last year. “It was definitely a show of support.”
Rev. Brandiilyne Dear, co-founder of the Dandelion Project, also criticized the measure during an interview at a coffee shop in downtown Laurel.
“SB 2681 is the living embodiment of everything that the Old South stood for,” she said. “It was a law to let the LGBT community know that there’s no place for them here.”
Members of the Dandelion Project were far more blunt about SB 2681 as they spoke to the Blade a few hours later during their weekly meeting at the small house in which Dear and her partner, Susan, live in Laurel.
“I don’t understand why they’re going to just bring up more bullshit,” said Aiden, a 20-year-old transgender man from Laurel. “I mean just get over it. If they would open up their minds like they open up their mouths, we’d be set.”
Other members of the Dandelion Project told the Blade that the manager of a popular restaurant in Hattiesburg last month brought a lesbian couple their food in carry-out containers and told them it was closing, even though it was 7 p.m. and it was full of other customers.
Bob Saunders said as he and his partner, Eric Wood, and two other local LGBT advocates stuffed envelopes for the “We don’t discriminate” campaign at their Jackson home on Thursday that someone criticized the owner of a local tire shop for supporting the effort against SB 2681. He said the business owner gave the person who questioned his position on the law a number of things about him that included he had voted for President Obama.
“It was a really potent statement,” said Saunders.
Bryant an ‘idiot’ for signing bill; has gay son?
Mississippi’s anti-discrimination and hate crime laws do not include sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
Outlaw told the Blade that he and others behind the “We don’t discriminate” campaign have met with the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi to strategize a response to any incidents of businesses denying services to LGBT people under SB 2681.
“We are all being vigilant and prepared to document these stories and share them,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a matter of if. I think it’s a matter of when something will happen.”
A number of LGBT Mississippians with whom the Blade has spoken in recent days said they feel Bryant signed SB 2681 into law to simply please his conservative base.
“I’m not surprised at all,” said Ryvell Fitzpatrick, a gay teacher, during an interview at his home in Greenville as he discussed the measure and other controversial Mississippi laws that have recently taken effect. “There’s a good old boys connection that’s going on and if you’re in, you’re in. If you’re not, oh well. And I definitely see things happening that are almost tokens that are thrown just to kind of pacify [their supporters] or just to shut people up.”
Alyx, a 27-year-old lesbian who is a member of the Dandelion Project, said the governor signed SB 2681 because he’s an “idiot.”
Bryant said in a statement he released after signing the measure that it is identical to a federal law that then-President Bill Clinton signed in 1993.
“I am proud to sign the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act today, which will protect the individual religious freedom of Mississippians of all faiths from government interference,” said Bryant. “Mississippi has now joined 18 other states to defend religious freedoms on a state level.”
Moore speculated the real reason Bryant signed the measure into law is because he has yet to accept his adult son’s homosexuality.
“He’s got some demons,” said Moore. The Blade could not immediately confirm that Patrick Bryant, an interior designer based in Austin, Texas, is gay.
‘We don’t discriminate’
Those involved with the campaign against SB 2681 remain hopeful it will continue to gain traction.
Moore showed the Blade a picture of a flier the New York City Commission on Human Rights used that contained the campaign’s slogan. Wood and Saunders noted people as far away as Uganda have requested stickers.
“It’s not just for the LGBT community,” said Moore. “I know it’s got a rainbow on it, but that’s because of that’s how it started. The message is we don’t discriminate.”