Mississippi Legislature Passes Anti-Gay ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill

Less than a month after the Mississippi legislature sent the state’s Senate Bill 2681 (aka the “license to discriminate bill”) to committee for review, it returned — and has now passed, the Washington Blade reports:

IMississippi_flagn 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.

The bill would allow businesses to deny service to LGBT people while claiming “exercise of religion.” But new text added to the resurrected bill would allow businesses to defy any “state laws, rules, regulations, and municipal and county ordinances” as long as they did so under “exercise of religion.”

The bill closely resembles the bill that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed in February. Keep in mind the the NFL, MLB, Intel, Apple and the last two Republican presidential candidates all spoke out against Arizona’s bill.

BryantDeep South Progressive reported on the bill yesterday:

The point, of course, is to say that there is almost nothing over which a claim of religious belief does not take precedence. A law doesn’t have to be intended to interfere with religious exercise; a religious person just has to claim it interferes.

This version of the bill goes beyond protecting free exercise of religion, instead solidly establishing claims of religious exercise in a privileged position above all else… That could jeopardize recent advances made in Starkville, Hattiesburg, and Oxford, where anti-discrimination effort – including discrimination against LGBT people and other minority – via diversity resolutions have passed to great fanfare in recent months.

The Blade adds:

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.”

The ACLU released a statement about the bill's passage:

If Governor Phil Bryant (pictured) signs, the law will go into effect on July 1, 2014

“We remain hopeful that courts throughout the state will reject any attempts to use religion to justify discrimination,” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “Nobody should be refused service because of who they are.”

The law could allow individuals and businesses to bring challenges against what they view as substantial government burdens against religion, including challenging existing nondiscrimination laws. Legislatures across the country, including in Georgia, Idaho, Maine, and Ohio, have rejected similar measures. On February 26, 2014, Governor Jan Brewer vetoed Arizona’s version. Bills are still pending in Missouri and Oklahoma.

“Even though the Mississippi legislature removed some of the egregious language from Arizona’s infamous SB 1062, we are disappointed that it passed this unnecessary law and ignored the national, public outcry against laws of this nature,” said Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel with the ACLU. “We will continue to fight in state legislatures across the country to ensure that religious freedom remains a shield, not a sword.”