Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a controversial religious freedom bill Tuesday, a piece of legislation that gay rights groups and the state’s businesses have decried as discriminatory.
Protesters had urged the governor not to sign it, saying it enables discrimination of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
But Bryant said he signed the bill into law “to protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions of individuals, organizations and private associations from discriminatory action by state government.”
The legislation does not challenge federal law — “even those which are in conflict with the Mississippi Constitution” — and reinforces First Amendment rights, a statement from the governor said.
“The legislation is designed in the most targeted manner possible to prevent government interference in the lives of the people from which all power to the state is derived,” he said.
The ACLU of Mississippi promptly responded, tweeting that Bryant “just made discrimination a part of state law.”
“Welcome to Mississippi, the hospitality state that says you’re okay only if you’re straight and married!” read another tweet, incorporating the hashtag “#ShameOnPhil.”
What’s in the bill?
The law says it protects from discrimination claims anyone who believes that marriage is between one man and one woman, that sexual relations are reserved solely for marriage, and that the terms male and female pertain only to a person’s genetics and anatomy at birth.
Under the law, religious organizations will be able to deny LGBT people marriage, adoption and foster care services; fire or refuse to employ them; and decline to rent or sell them property. Medical professionals will be permitted to refuse to participate in treatments, counseling and surgery related to “sex reassignment or gender identity transitioning.”
Meanwhile, people who adhere to the aforementioned beliefs may deny wedding services — including DJing, dressmaking and limousine rental — while employers and school administrators will be allowed to establish “sex-specific standards or policies concerning employee or student dress or grooming.”
Employers and school administrators will be allowed to dictate access to bathrooms, spas, locker rooms “or other intimate facilities and settings,” the law states.
The law also addresses the matter of government officials granting marriage licenses and performing ceremonies, an issue thrust into the spotlight last year when Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, spent five days in jail for refusing to give same-sex couples marriage licenses.
Mississippi’s law will allow clerks and their deputies to be provided a process for recusing themselves from licensing marriages, and judges, magistrates, justices of the peace and their deputies will be given a similar process for recusing themselves from performing marriages, based on their religious beliefs.
The legislation will take effect on July 1.
Businesses, rights groups allege discrimination
The state Senate passed the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act last Wednesday in a 32-17 vote and sent it to Bryant.
The state’s businesses, which were relatively quiet as the bill navigated the state Legislature, are now decrying it as discriminatory, joining a chorus of watchdog groups — including the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign and Southern Poverty Law Center, which staged a protest at the governor’s mansion — that have denounced it.
Included among corporations denouncing the legislation were MGM Resorts International, Nissan, Toyota, Tyson Foods, AT&T, IBM and Levi Strauss & Co.
The Mississippi Economic Council, which declined to take a position until its lawyers had reviewed the bill, updated its policy Friday and announced its opposition to the bill over the weekend. The council has 11,000 members and represents about 1,200 dues-paying companies, said the group’s president and CEO, Blake Wilson.
Its new policy reads, “As the State Chamber of Commerce for a state that has proven its hospitable and business-friendly approach, MEC opposes efforts that would intentionally or unintentionally prevent Mississippi businesses from implementing and enforcing nondiscrimination policies or that would limit diversity and inclusion impacting their customers and employees.”
The stance is similar to one the council took in response to a 2014 religious bill, but the council’s board added the words, “or that would limit diversity and inclusion.”
“Our core values are no discrimination, but we didn’t really have that in writing, so we needed to get it in writing,” Wilson told CNN. “Why would we not be reflective of our core membership?”
Wilson further called the council’s stance a “no-brainer,” and while the majority of its members supported the updated policy, there were “some who didn’t agree with our position — but, hey, welcome to America.”
Watchdog groups have decried the legislation as discriminatory against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and some analysts say the discrimination does not end with LGBT people. It could easily be applied to unwed mothers or people living together out of wedlock, they say.
In effect, they say, many forms of discrimination that weren’t outlawed will now be codified in Mississippi law.
“They don’t necessarily need to have this bill to do it,” said Erik Fleming, the director of advocacy and policy for the ACLU of Mississippi.
One disturbing element, according to Atlanta lawyer and legal analyst Page Pate, is the section allowing religious organizations to deny housing to unmarried couples, which, in his opinion, conflicts with federal housing laws.
“In Mississippi, like Georgia, it is already completely legal for businesses to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in housing and employment decisions,” he said.
But he is most concerned with the section of the law that allows schools and businesses “to engage in a wide range of discriminatory conduct in the workplace as long as they can make an argument that it is tied to a ‘moral conviction’ about traditional gender identity and stereotypes,” he said.
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation highlighted Mississippians who would be affected and said that under the bill’s provisions, members of the LGBT community could be denied counseling from suicide hotlines or be forced into “conversion therapy,” a practice that some states have outlawed. Also, the law could permit private companies to fire women for wearing pants, GLAAD said.
Protect Thy Neighbor, an initiative of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, adds that divorcees could be denied marriage licenses, adoption agencies could refuse to place children with couples who lived together before they were married, taxpayer-funded shelters could turn away pregnant teenagers, fertility clinics could refuse to treat unwed couples and car rental agencies could decline to rent cars to same-sex couples on their honeymoons.
Some faith groups and leaders in Mississippi oppose the law.
“On a philosophical and religious level, I’m deeply disappointed that religion is being used as an excuse to validate prejudice and persecution. And even more than that, as an American, I am profoundly upset by what I consider to be a perversion of the First Amendment, which amounts to a reversal of the First Amendment,” said Rabbi Stephen Wylen with the Beth Israel Congregation, in Jackson.
The Rt. Rev. Brian R. Seage, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi, said that the law effectively creates an additional class of citizens.
“Ungrounded fear is never a solid foundation for legislation. That seems to be the case here. Our beloved state has struggled to move beyond its troubling past but, unfortunately, this legislation has placed Mississippi back in the crosshairs of critical public opinion,” he said.
Others call the law a victory for religious freedom
The Christian-based American Family Association and the Family Research Council both cast the legislation as a win for religious freedom and applauded the governor’s decision, which the AFA dubbed a “brave” move that showed lawmakers would not bend to the will of “gay activists and state business organizations who are hostile to Christianity.”
Added Family Research Council President Tony Perkins: “Big business and Hollywood have engaged in economic blackmail in Mississippi just like they have in Indiana, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas to try to force government discrimination of those who support natural marriage. However, unlike Indiana and Georgia, leaders in Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas have chosen to defend the fundamental freedom of their citizens to believe and live according to those beliefs, rather than capitulate to the economic threats of big business and entertainment.”
William Perkins, editor of The Baptist Record, the news journal of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, supported the law.
“What the LGBT political machine sees as discrimination, we see as protection of rights as old as the United States itself, and that is the right to worship as we please and not have a grandmother florist crushed by her state government for her Christian faith, or to have a young couple supporting their five children from a mom and pop bakery shop likewise have their bank accounts seized by the government for their religious beliefs,” he said.
Last week, Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed Georgia House Bill 757, which would have given faith-based organizations the option to deny services and jobs to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Though major businesses including Delta Air Lines, Marvel Studios, the NFL, The Walt Disney Company and CNN’s parent company, Time Warner Inc., expressed their displeasure with the bill, Deal told reporters that pressure from the business community had no bearing on his decision.
“I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia, of which I and my family have been a part of for all of our lives,” he said.
CNN’s Leigh Waldman, Kevin Conlon, Joseph Netto, Devon M. Sayers and MaryLynn Ryan contributed to this report.
By Eliott C. McLaughlin