In Mississippi's religious freedom law, some see echoes of a shameful past

Mississippi: The last place to change
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Story highlights

  • Mississippi's new religious freedom law reminds some residents of civil rights-era discrimination
  • "It's the new Jim Crow," says a woman who grew up the youngest of 10 children on a cotton farm
  • The law will protect those who refuse gay customers on the grounds that doing so would violate a religious belief

Jackson, Mississippi (CNN)It wasn't too long ago that lawmakers in Mississippi would invoke verse and scripture to justify discrimination.

"The good Lord was the original segregationist," proclaimed Ross Barnett, Mississippi's governor, in the early 1960s. "He made the white man white and the black man black, and he did not intend for them to mix.''
For much of the past century, that's the way it was in Mississippi, whose history is stained by civil rights-era prejudice and violence. From the lynching of Emmett Till to riots over desegregation at Ole Miss, it's a legacy that modern-day Mississippi wants to leave behind.
But now, decades later, comes a controversial new law -- passed in the name of religion -- that critics decry as state-sanctioned bigotry against gays, lesbians and transgender residents. And some here are wondering whether Mississippi's shameful past is once again rearing its ugly head.
"Discriminating because (someone is) gay, that's still discrimination, just like when we (were) coming up as black (and) they would discriminate against our color," said Juanita Moore, 54, an African-American who grew up the youngest of 10 children on a cotton farm southeast of Jackson. Moore has little use for the state's "Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act," perhaps the most far-reaching of the so-called "religious freedom" bills sweeping through the South.
"It's the new Jim Crow," she said.
Moore was born just as Jim Crow, the collective name for the state, local and regional laws that segregated and subjugated African Americans in Mississippi and other parts of the South until the 1960s, was being forcibly dismantled by the federal government. But she believes "we got a lot of people in Mississippi still stuck in those days."
No less an authority than U.S. Congressman John Lewis, a towering icon of the civil rights movement, agrees.
"The hateful new law in Mississippi is plain wrong," he said earlier this month on Twitter. "Mississippi has a long dark past, and once again it is on the wrong side of history."

What the law does

In a nutshell, the law, which goes into effect July 1, will shield private businesses and some public-sector employees from legal action and discipline if they refuse a customer on the grounds that doing so would violate a "sincerely held religious belief." For example, the law would protect a bakery owner who declines on religious grounds to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.
"It's not discriminating against anyone," Gov. Phil Bryant insisted to CNN affiliate WAPT.
In fact, Bryant said the law is meant to prevent discrimination against people like him, Christians with deeply held religious beliefs about marriage and sex.
"All we're trying to do is say that people of faith have some protection from an overbearing government," he added. "People of faith have some rights as well in this country."
In this, Mississippi is hardly unique.
In addition to high-profile battles playing out over religious-freedom laws in Tennessee and North Carolina, there have been some 100 bills proposed in legislatures across the United States in 2016 that invoke religion as justification to refuse services to gay people, according to Eunice Rho of the American Civil Liberties Union.
But Mississippi's legislation is exceptionally far-reaching. It will allow "the right to discriminate against a broad range of Mississippians in a variety of contexts including housing, employment, public services, education and adoption," said a memo signed by 19 law professors from Mississippi and beyond. "Those who will be most harmed by this law are LGBT Mississippians, intersex persons, persons who defy sex and gender stereotypes."
Critics also see echoes of past prejudices, both in the state and elsewhere.
"Governor Bryant turned back the clock to a dark time in Mississippi's past," said Wade Henderson, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a national advocacy group.
"Religious liberty is meant to be a sacred shield to protect people from discrimination, not a sword to deny civil rights and equality to others. These are the same arguments used to oppose women's suffrage, interracial marriage, the acceptance of Asian immigrants, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the abolition of slavery."

'Everyone I know is ashamed'

Mississippi Governor signs 'religious freedom' bill
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In the days after its passage, CNN spoke with dozens of Mississippians of different ages, genders, races, sexual identities and religious beliefs about the new law. Some supported it, some opposed it and some were ambivalent. But one thing tied almost all of them together: a wounded sense of pride about the place they call home.
John Haynes, a Tupelo native whose family history in Mississippi dates back to the 1700s, is worried the new law strikes dangerously close to wounds from the 1950s and 1960s that have not yet fully healed.
"It harkens back to that era," Haynes, 39, said. "To those sins of 50 years ago that we'd long since put behind us."
Although Haynes now lives near Washington, D.C., he said he'll always consider Mississippi home.
"It's my beloved state," said the NASA meteorologist, who recently wrote a letter to the editor published in the Clarion-Ledger, the state's largest newspaper, bemoaning the law as something that "could have easily been written in 1956."
"I am so upset and disappointed (because) we have done so much work over the past few decades to rehabilitate our image," he told CNN. "Everyone I know is ashamed."
"I feel like it's taking us back years," agreed Jeromie Jones, 30, who owns a bakery in Pearl, a suburb of Jackson. "At one time, I felt like we were progressing and getting somewhere, but now all that is being overshadowed by another law that puts (Mississippi) at the bottom of the totem pole."
Jones, who married his husband, George, in December, is so concerned over the law's potential effects that he is seriously considering leaving the state.
"I always wanted to stay here, because this was home," he told CNN. "Every time someone gets big from this area, they move away (...) they are always leaving, they always forget where they came from, but I didn't want to be that person," he said. "But (the law) pretty much just took that and wiped it away.
"I'm black, and I'm gay," Jones added. "I got too many strikes against me in Mississippi."

An overreaction?

Unlike Jones, Mark Leopold will probably never be affected by this law. The 28-year-old bartender is straight and married and has no plans to switch genders.
But, like Jones, he is fuming.
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"When outsiders who've never been to Mississippi look in and see these headlines, they don't see the good part about Mississippi, they only see the bad," he said. "And the people that are from here are sick of being the ass-end of every joke."
Even among those who supported the spirit of the law, there is a sense of regret.
"This is what I share in common with the framers of the bill," said Robert Green, a senior pastor at Fondren Church in Jackson. "We are concerned about religious freedom because if we're told what we can do and I have to do this kind of wedding or that kind of wedding, that's not America anymore."
"But," said Green, "(the law) was an overreaction, and it has hurt Mississippi so badly."
As for Moore, the lifelong Mississippian, grandmother of two, and child of segregation, she believes it's time for Mississippi's dark history to finally become history.
"It's 2016," she said. "Time for us to change."