Last night, lawmakers in Mississippi passed SB 2681, an Arizona-style "right to discriminate" bill that would allow individuals and businesses to refuse to serve people or groups if they claimed that treating them equally would "substantially burden" their "exercise of religion."
The measure grants wide latitude for people and businesses to pick and choose who they want to serve, as long as they say they're doing it on religious grounds. Even "laws 'neutral' toward religion may burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to interfere with religious exercise," the bill asserts.
The Washington Blade reports:
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.
The bill now goes to conservative Republican Governor Phil Bryant, who is widely expected to sign it into law. If he does, the measure will take effect on July 1.
SB 2681's language is broad, and its sponsor -- Baptist minister and Republican State Senator Phillip Gandy -- has been careful not to specifically mention LGBT people in his public comments about the bill. But wink-and-a-nod remarks like one, from an interview Gandy gave to conservative Christian website OneNewsNow.com makes the bill's intent perfectly clear:
Sen. Gandy adds that it is not a reflection of the advances homosexual activists have made in pushing Christians into the closet.
"We are asked to be tolerant of many things," the lawmaker accounts, "and all we're asking for is some understanding and tolerance of our beliefs as well, that we would not be placed under an undue burden to do something that would violate our religious freedoms and our religious beliefs."
See? This isn't about discrimination against teh anti-Christian homosexual activists. It's about tolerance, you guys!
Of course, equality advocates are calling shenanigans. Details, after the jump.
Human Rights Campaign State Legislative Director Sarah Warbelow reacted via press release:
"While there were many efforts to correct the clearly problematic elements of this legislation, the bill still has the effect of making 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. 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. Governor Bryant must veto the measure."
The ACLU adds:
"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."...
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."
And as Deep South Progressive notes, the real effect of this bill will be to privilege religion above all else in the Magnolia State:
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 right there is what it's all about, folks. See, there are no protections for LGBT folks in Mississippi right now, at either the state or the local level -- so it's already legal to "turn away the gay" because Jesus, or because any other reason.
So what SB 2681 amounts to is a preemptive strike against future advancements in LGBT rights. Mississippi lawmakers see the writing on the wall -- they know that society is moving rapidly in the direction of LGBT inclusiveness and equality -- so their goal with this bill is to carve out as wide a berth for religion-based bigotry as possible and sabotage future efforts to advance things like local nondiscrimination ordinances in that state.