'Religious freedom' bills: Opinions are as different as individuals in the South

Story highlights

  • Bills and laws about "religious freedom" are prevalent in the Southeastern states
  • CNN journalists collected opinions from residents across the region

Jackson, Mississippi (CNN)A spate of bills across the nation, but especially across the South, has pitted religious freedom against LGBT rights, resurrecting the specter of the civil rights movement, which saw religion and race locking horns many decades ago.

In North Carolina, it's about which bathrooms transgender people can use. The same concerns have been raised in South Carolina's legislature.
    Tennessee says it wants to protect the religious freedom of therapists who wish not to treat the LGBT community.
    And in Mississippi, the bill covers everything from wedding DJs to adoption services.
    CNN journalists fanned out to gather a spectrum of opinions from around the South. Those sounding off provided a variety of opinions, ranging from outright approval to tepid acceptance to concern to denunciation. Here are some of their stories.

    Bartender

    The friends Mark Leopold made upon moving to Mississippi proved many of his impressions wrong.
    Mark Leopold, 28, is white, straight, privileged, educated and, when he moved to Jackson, Mississippi, for his wife's job, he was perfectly cognizant that he could be viewed as a carpetbagger. The Syracuse, New York, native was also aware of Mississippi's reputation for being slow to progress in many ways.
    He was surprised when he arrived two years ago. The people were welcoming, humble, gracious and "sick of being the ass-end of every joke." He and his wife have already made lifelong friends during their short stint in the Magnolia State. He called them "the best people we've ever been friends with," and those friends are now distraught, as he is.
    "It's sickening and mystifying," the Ivy League graduate said. "This law is not going to personally affect me, but so many of our friends that we've become close with down here either have young children or about to have kids, and you can tell when you talk to them that they don't know if this is an environment they want to bring a child up in."
    The argument that the bill protects Christianity in one of the most devout states in the Union seems spurious to him. It appears Mississippi is acting like "an animal backed into a corner, and lashing out against progress, freedom, love, anything that they can to preserve the way that they think that things should be." And this is to say nothing of the potential brain drain the law could spawn, he said.
    "People that are educated, progressive are not going to want to stay in a state that promotes discrimination. So people that have moved here such as my wife and myself, it's not encouraging for us to stay here," he said. "How could we live in a place that is openly encouraging discrimination? People that we're friends with, too."

    Evangelist

    Franklin Graham says HB2 protects "women and children against sexual predators."
    Franklin Graham is the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, and is an accomplished evangelist in his own right. The 63-year-old North Carolina native believes his state's Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, which bans people from using bathrooms that don't correspond with their biological sex, protects "women and children against sexual predators."
    In a Wednesday post to Facebook, he applauded Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who recently said that if the law protected one woman or child from being molested, it was worth it, and any company that didn't appreciate "the worth of our children" could take their business elsewhere.
    He also took aim at PayPal in the post. The online payment company announced this it was nixing plans for an operations center in Charlotte because it would be "simply untenable" to employ people in a state where team members wouldn't enjoy equal rights. Graham said this earned the California-based company "the hypocrite of the year award!"
    "PayPal operates in countries including Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Yemen, for Pete's sake. Just last month PayPal announced they would be expanding in Cuba, a country in which homosexuals and transgender people have been imprisoned, tortured, and executed," he wrote. "And under the current law that they are so strongly protesting, PayPal could have chosen their own corporate bathroom policies."

    Photographer

    Art instructor Maia Dery thinks North Carolina's H.B. 2 is a byproduct of a larger problem: shoddy redistricting.
    Maia Dery is a photographer who teaches her craft as an art instructor at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, and she feels the politicians in her state who stand by House Bill 2, aka "the bathroom bill," could learn a thing or two from talking to someone who isn't in politics. She's looking at Gov. Pat McCrory, in particular.
    "It might not do him any harm to spend some time in civil discourse with people who disagree with him, because that is completely lacking at the state level and at the national level as far as I can tell," the 50-year-old said. McCrory could benefit from a "10-day backpacking trip with people who disagree with him, not a party conversation. I'm talking about an immersive experience," said the surfer and blogger who enjoys leading photo expeditions to capture images around the Tar Heel State.
    H.B. 2, she said, while problematic, especially for the economy and tourism, is only a symptom of a bigger issue: biased redistricting efforts that favor the conservative majority and dilute the voices of progressive voters on issues, which is "how we got this Legislature. That's how we got H.B. 2. That's how we got voter ID laws and restrictions on early voting."
    More than a repeal of H.B. 2, she'd like to see efforts to bridge what she calls "a pretty intransigent cultural divide." In short, she said, "What we really need is sensible voting districts with diversity in all of them that allows us to have a vigorous debate at every level."

    Baker

    Jeromie Jones was born and raised in Mississippi, but now he's thinking of finding a new home.
    Jeromie Jones, 30, experienced discrimination firsthand when he was preparing to wed his now-husband and tried to rent a wedding venue. Jones is African-American, as was the venue owner, who told him, "We don't serve your kind here." It was already hard being a black man in Mississippi, he said. But gay and black? Sheesh.
    The owner of Cakes by Kake King in Pearl, Mississippi, Jones was born and raised in Mississippi, and as a Christian, he never understood how people wondered aloud how he could reconcile loving God and being gay. But now, with what some observers call "one of the worst" religious freedom bills in the country set to take effect in July, he is downright ashamed of the place where he grew up. He now feels like a second-class citizen and worries that instances of discrimination will increase.
    "I am absolutely outraged, especially being a black homosexual male. ... I'm considering moving my shop to Texas," he told CNN. "It's going to be more blatant than ever because now they have religion to justify it. The state has made it OK."
    "It feels like I'm leaving behind something that I worked so hard for. It took me nine months to open, and I feel like I birthed this," he said from his shop. "And now I have an opportunity to share it with my husband and our kids one day, and we have to pretty much pick up and move everything because I don't feel like that we're ever going to be appreciated here for who we are. We're never going to be looked at as equal."

    Seamstress

    Jackqulin Buchanan says she'll provide services for gay couples, just not wedding gowns or tuxes.
    Jackqulin Buchanan's mother taught her to sew, a skill that has been passed down in her family from generation to generation. She now owns Seam-ing-ly Perfect Alterations Boutique in Jackson, Mississippi, where she specializes in sewing formal wear, namely for weddings and proms. She considers her Christianity an integral part of her business and says, "I don't compromise my faith or my belief in any way."
    If a gay couple visited her shop to buy wedding outfits, she would first share her beliefs, she told CNN. If they insisted on patronizing her business, "I would probably decline on servicing them because I believe that marriage is instituted by God between a man and a woman."
    She doesn't "profile" her customers, she said, and she certainly wouldn't refuse to serve customers because they're gay -- "We all gotta wear clothes, so I am in the business to dress everybody" -- but if a gay or lesbian couple wanted her to provide them with tuxes or gowns, she'd politely send them elsewhere.
    "I don't care what it is you come in for, I'm here to service the community. However, as far as marriages are concerned, that's different for me. You know I'm not going to be a part of that setup," she said. "In a marriage, there is the head of the marriage and that would be the male, and it gets confusing when you have two males, so crossing the line starts confusion and that is something that I don't believe in. So I'm not going to promote it, so they can walk away."

    Sports announcer

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    Long before Charles Barkley dazzled on the basketball court and before he earned a reputation for his outspoken personality, he was a child in Leeds, Alabama. He was born in the same year and a short distance from the infamous Birmingham Church bombing. The horrific act forever changed the tenor of the fight for civil rights.
    "You'd think 53 years later, we wouldn't be having these same things," he said of North Carolina's "bathroom bill." It always seems, he says, that the South is leading the way when it comes to discriminating against classes of people.
    "The one thing that bothers me about Christian people is they're always talk about religion, but they forget about not judging other people," he said. "Sometimes, especially with this situation with the lesbian and gay thing, they hide behind the Bible.
    "Money always speaks," Barkley said. He would like to see major corporations standing up for the people who work for them. Most big companies have minority or gay employees, so it behooves them to "represent your co-workers." The NBA, where he spent 16 years plying his trade, could lead the way, he said.
    "I think the NBA should move the All-Star Game from Charlotte," he said. "You know, as a black person, I'm against any form of discrimination -- against whites, Hispanics, gays, lesbians, however you want to phrase it. It's my job with the position of power that I'm in -- being able to be on television -- I'm supposed to stand up for the people who can't stand up for themselves."

    Therapist

    Jeannie Ingram wonders what if she could say her religion barred her from treating straight people.
    "What happens if it were reversed?" asked Nashville therapist Jeannie Ingram of Tennessee's proposed legislation that would permit therapists and counselors with strong religious beliefs to reject LGBT patients. What if, she posited, she decided as a lesbian therapist that she would stop treating heterosexuals? Or that she wouldn't help a couple who had had an affair?
    Growing up in a Southern Baptist home in Birmingham, Alabama, Ingram knew as a teenager that she wanted to help people in life. Upon graduating from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, she worked as a crisis counselor at a rape-and-suicide hotline before shifting to counseling family members who lost loved ones to suicide. Eventually, she "just hit the wall" and made the move to couples therapy.
    "I really fell in love with the work of helping couples heal with their struggles. I dearly love marriage therapy," Ingram said. One of her goals is to ensure that her clients feel safe in sharing anything without fear of being judged. "I think (Tennessee's House Bill 1840) has the potential to send the message that they could get shunned if they don't find the right person."
    Ingram attends a Lutheran church in Nashville and has no beef with religion, but she feels the bill conflicts with the American Counseling Association's code of ethics. The bill, she said, "comes way too close to making discrimination a legal precedent. That's the last thing a hurting society needs."

    Rental operations manager

    In North Carolina, Charlie Comero hands out cards to explain why he's in the women's restroom.
    Charlie Comero was disappointed when he learned that he had to start using the women's restroom in North Carolina, thanks to the state's Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, which puts transgender people such as Comero, who does not identify with the gender on his birth certificate, in the uncomfortable position of being forced to pee with women.
    The Charlotte resident decided to prepare for the confusion that could arise from a man with a high and tight fade in the women's room.
    He printed cards to hand out that read, "I'm following a law that was passed on March 23. I am a transgender man who would rather be using the men's room right now. This is likely uncomfortable for both of us. Please contact your legislature and tell them you oppose HB2."
    One day, he ducked into the government center to use the women's restroom. On his way out, he passed a woman who kindly pointed out he was using the women's room. She refused to take the card. He realized later that many people probably don't know what it means to be a transgender man or woman.
    Their perceptions might be based on pop culture caricatures such as Tim Curry's "sweet transvestite" from the "Rocky Horror Picture Show." For some, the word "transgender" might bring to mind "RuPaul's Drag Race," a celebration of pageantry focused more on performance skills than gender identity.

    Minister

    Barney Self says he doesn't let his personal opposition to same-sex marriage affect his work as a therapist.
    Barney Self is a man of two different worlds. In one, he is president of the Tennessee Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and a licensed marriage and family therapist. In the other, he is an ordained Southern Baptist minister at Forest Hills Baptist Church in Nashville.
    He is opposed to same-sex marriage, but he says this doesn't affect his job as a therapist: "I am delighted to work with whoever comes into my office."
    When a new client comes in, Self lays everything on the table and shares with them his beliefs and values. From there, the client can decide how to proceed.
    "If a client says to me, 'I'm gay and you're a Baptist; I don't feel comfortable,' I give them a list of other therapists that they might feel more comfortable with. It's a co-constructive reality."
    Tennessee's House Bill 1840 hurts this process and creates a unilateral format that is not constructive to the client and makes them feel uncomfortable, he said. This bill does more harm than good in his opinion and "ultimately, it legalizes malpractice."

    Dressmaker

    Lashanda Brumfield still serves the LGBT community, despite her religious beliefs.
    Lashanda Brumfield, 37, is a Christian who firmly believes marriage should be reserved for one man and one woman, but at Classy Curvy Bridal in Pearl, Mississippi, she has no intention of turning away gay couples. Why? Well, because she's Christian, she said.
    While some are using the Bible to back their stance that businesses and religious organizations in Mississippi should be able to deny services to the LGBT community, she cites her Christianity as a reason to serve them like she would any other customer.
    "There have been limitations on populations [in Mississippi]," she said. "It's been there the longest for African-Americans. It's been there for women, for the poor. So we have a stigma already here. It may add a little more."

    IT supervisor

    Maurice Jackson  believes compromise on "a unisex bathroom" should be considered.
    "To me there is one God -- I mean I believe in Christ Jesus, some people believe in Buddha or in [Hinduism] -- but at the end of the day, I look at it like it's a math problem," says Maurice Jackson, 33, of Rock Hill, South Carolina. "There are multiple ways to get to 4."
    Jackson, an IT supervisor for a large company, sees multiple equations in play over "bathroom bills" -- specifically H.B. 2 in his home state of North Carolina, and a similar bill introduced this week in South Carolina -- and believes that instead of contention there should be room for compromise.
    "I just know what I believe, and I'm not going to force that on nobody," said Jackson. "Not even my kids. ... if they decide that they choose to go another route I'm going to still love them, I'm not going to try to abandon them from the family name, because that's just ridiculous. That's me being a hypocrite of all the stuff I was taught about love, which that sums up everything in this situation. There's so much hatred and not a lot of love going out."
    The 33-year-old Jackson said that if South Carolina were to pass a "bathroom bill" (which he believes won't happen) and companies and organizations sought to punish the state economically, then most blue-collar people likely would "stand their ground more."
    Jackson said he can understand fears that ordinances allowing transgender people to use the restrooms consistent with their identity could be abused -- that "if you're a ... registered child offender, you can basically change your identity and then you still have access to go in these bathrooms with kids."
    He says he believes compromise on "a unisex bathroom" should be considered.

    Certified public accountant

    "History has proven separate but equal does not work," said Terry Livingston.
    Terry Livingston is a certified public accountant at Gamble & Livingston CPAs, LLC, where he works with his husband, Steve Gamble, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
    The two met in college, have been together 32 years and got legally married two years ago in Washington, D.C. Their accounting firm has been serving small businesses and individuals in their community since 1988. But helping folks with their taxes isn't all that's important to them.
    Livingston is the co-founder of TAKEOVER Grand Strand, whose mission is advancing acceptance of the LGBT community in the Myrtle Beach area through increased visibility. He decided to start the organization because "it wasn't enough just to be tolerated, [he] wanted to be accepted, too."
    The proposed bathroom bill is a direct attack on the LGBT community, he told CNN affiliate WPDE.
    "This bill makes the 12th proposed bill introduced this year that in some way includes anti-LGBT language in it," he said. "So far, none of them have reached the floor for a vote and we want this to not to be voted on, too."
    The nation's past demonstrates the problem with LGBT legislation, Livingston said.
    "Some propose a separate bathroom option for transgendered, but history has proven separate but equal does not work," he said.

    Pastor

    Mississippi pastor Robert Green says he occupies the "messy middle" when it comes to his state's controversial new "religious freedom" law
    Robert Green occupies what he calls the "messy middle ground" when it comes to religious freedom laws.
    The senior pastor at Fondren Church in Jackson, Mississippi, said he supports the "spirit of the law" because of his belief that marriage is between one man and one woman, but told CNN he doesn't think its government's place to "legislate morality."
    "I have a view of scripture. "But what I believe, I don't want to impose it on you."
    "I personally think Jesus would bake a cake for a gay couple, but would he be minister at that wedding to provide the sacred sanctions? I think that's a different story altogether."
    While Green takes comfort in knowing the new law means he now cannot be forced into presiding over a same-sex wedding, he admitted he wasn't even sure if he could have been in the first place, and didn't know of anyone who had.
    "It was an overreaction," he said of the action taken by lawmakers, "and it has hurt Mississippi so badly."