Mississippi Business Owners Protest State’s Anti-Gay Law
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — In conservative Mississippi, some business owners who support equal treatment for gays and lesbians are pushing back against a new law that bans government from limiting the free practice of religion.
Critics fear the vaguely written law, which takes effect July 1, will prompt authorities to look away from anti-gay actions that are carried out in the name of religious beliefs — for example, photographers refusing to take pictures for same-sex couples because they believe homosexuality is a sin.
Hundreds of businesses, from hair salons to bakeries and art galleries, have started displaying round blue window stickers that declare: “We don’t discriminate. If you’re buying, we’re selling.”
The sticker campaign started this month in response to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant’s signing the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The law says government cannot put a substantial burden on religious practices, without a compelling reason. While it does not specifically mention gays or lesbians, “People are going to take it as permission, if you will, to discriminate against people they don’t necessarily agree with or like,” said Jackson hair salon owner Eddie Outlaw, 42, who went out of state to marry his husband.
“We have a long and well-documented history of discrimination in this state,” Outlaw said. “To think there won’t be any discrimination is laughable.”
Outlaw is among the leaders of the “We don’t discriminate” campaign, and he displays one of the stickers in the window of his salon in Jackson’s eclectic Fondren neighborhood. Organizers say the first 500 decals were distributed in about two weeks to businesses from the Tennessee state line in the north down to the Gulf Coast. Another 1,000 stickers were on order.
Bryant won praise from national conservative groups, including the Family Research Council, by signing the legislation that was backed by the state’s Pentecostals and Southern Baptists. Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, who traveled from Washington to Jackson for a private bill signing ceremony April 3, is among Bryant’s backers.
“Those who understand the importance and cherish the historic understanding of religious freedom are grateful for leaders who respond to fact and not fictitious claims of those who are trying to quarantine faith within the walls of our churches or homes,” he said.
Bryant said the Mississippi act mirrors a federal law President Bill Clinton signed in 1993 and that 18 other states have enacted since the mid-1990s. The governor also said he does not believe Mississippi’s law, which also adds “In God We Trust” to the state seal, will lead to anti-gay discrimination.
“I would hope that people will realize that the law has no element in it that the federal law does not have in it,” Bryant told The Associated Press in his Capitol office. “It is the same discussion of not burdening someone’s religious freedom — that the government, government should not burden someone’s religious freedom without a compelling interest.”
In 2004, 86 percent of Mississippi voters approved a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The state has a hate-crimes law, but it does not cover acts committed against gays and lesbians.
Mitchell Moore owns Campbell’s Bakery, which is just up a hill from Outlaw’s salon. Moore helped create the “We don’t discriminate” sticker campaign, though he jokingly calls himself an “interloper” because he’s not gay. Moore, a Republican, said he’s angry because he believes Bryant and legislators are presuming to speak for the business community, and he said emphatically that they’re not.
“I am a straight, white, Southern, Christian conservative male,” Moore said. “I don’t understand why Christians consider one sin worse than another sin.”
Joce (pronounced JO-see, short for Jocelyn) Pritchett, 46, grew up in north Mississippi’s Webster County and lives and works in the Jackson area. She displays one of the “We don’t discriminate” stickers in the window of the civil-engineering business she owns.
Pritchett and her wife wed in 2013 in Maine, which legalized same-sex marriage, and they have two young children. She said she’s tired of hearing religious people say, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” while speaking of gays and lesbians.
“We don’t consider it a sin,” Pritchett said. “They pat you on the head and say, ‘I love you, honey. I’ll love you all the way to hell.'”
She said when the Mississippi House and Senate passed the bill on April 1, she heard from a friend who told her: “‘Oh, my God. We’re going to be Arizona.'”
Arizona is among the states that has had its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act on the books for years. It drew national attention earlier this year with a bill that would have altered the existing law by allowing businesses to refuse service to gays. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill after companies said it would hurt the state.
An early version of the Mississippi bill was similar to the one vetoed in Arizona. The final version, however, had been changed to only specify that government could not put a burden on religious practices, without a compelling reason. Portions that would’ve allowed private businesses to refuse service were removed.
While the Mississippi law angers him, Outlaw said he sees it as backlash from religious conservatives who are resisting equal treatment for gays and lesbians, including the right to marry. “The rational part of me realizes this is just the death rattle of the old way of life.”
Mississippi Governor Has Now Signed Not One But Two Anti-Gay ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills Into Law
Governor Phil Bryant this afternoon signed the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law. The highly-controversial law will allow anyone to discriminate against anyone else in the name of religious liberty, and places the rights and desires of the faithful over those with no religious beliefs. In short, it is a license to discriminate and likely will land the state in court.
Bryant has now signed two anti-gay “religious freedom” bills into law: SB 2633 and SB 2681.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, SB 2681, had been sent back to committee after Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a similar bill. The Mississippi bill was believed dead but lawmakers quickly changed the bill’s language and bill number and rammed it through the legislature in less than 24 hours, allowing the governor to sign it just as the legislative session closed.
The bill contains this troubling text:
“Laws ‘neutral’ toward religion may burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to interfere with religious exercise.”
“Government should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification.”
The bill could allow a pharmacist to refuse to sell contraception to a particular person, and could allow a child to tell a fellow student perceived as being gay they are going to hell — and cite the law as their right to continuously bully and harass them. The bill could also be used by a corporation to refuse to pay for certain medical procedures via its health insurance program, like abortion or birth control, as in the Hobby Lobby case currently before the Supreme Court.
Standing by Governor Bryant’s side as the bill was signed was none other than the head of the certified anti-gay hate group Family Research Council, Tony Perkins. Perkins then invited Bryant on his radio show this afternoon.
Bryant proceeded to falsely state that his state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act “mirrors” the federal government’s. It does not. Bryant’s characterization of his new law is false, faulty, and could easily lead to tremendous abuses.
Further, as Think Progress’ Zack Ford notes, the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act is different from other states’ RFRAs “because Mississippi law defines the word ‘person’ to include businesses, and thus it applies to corporations instead of just private citizens exercising their religious beliefs.”
And not only did Bryant sign the anti-gay Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law today, but last year he signed another so-called “religious freedom” law — for students.
On March 14, 2013, Bryant signed SB 2633, the Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act into law. His press office claims the “measure protects students from being discriminated against in a public school for expressing their religious viewpoints or engaging in religious activities.”
In reality, of course, the bill will allow the bullying of any student perceived as LGBT, and will give the bully cover not just through the bible or other religious text, but now through the full force of the power of the state: the law.
“Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions,” the bill’s text reads.
In short, students may announce to their classmates that, for example, LGBT people are going to hell, and the school may not discipline the child, as he can claim “religious freedom.” A student could also verbally attack any student or teacher as a “sinner” for any one of a number of issues, and claim “religious freedom.” It is a get out of jail free card for Mississippi students.
Bryant has opened the door for extreme religious based anti-gay hate to become legitimized, and has ensured his state’s regressive policies and attitudes for decades to come. Religious freedom should never be a yoke to oppress one’s fellow citizens.
byon April 3, 2014