Mississippi's religious freedom bill: Not discriminatory or 'one of the worst'?

Story highlights

  • Bill would allow clerks and judges to recuse themselves from permitting, performing marriages
  • "Once you open that Pandora's box ... you're going back in time," ACLU advocacy and policy director says
  • Lawmaker denies bill is discriminatory: "I have a problem with the discrimination of Christian belief"

(CNN)Mississippi lawmakers are considering a religious freedom bill that would not only allow businesses and religious groups to deny the LGBT community certain services -- such as counseling, wedding planning and adoption support -- but that would also protect those groups from punishment.

Included in the bill is a provision allowing government officials to recuse themselves from licensing or performing "legal marriages."
Gov. Phil Bryant has not indicated whether he would sign the bill, but he and proponents of House Bill 1523 have said the proposed legislation is not discriminatory.
    "This bill doesn't stop anyone from getting what they want from the state. I have a problem with the discrimination of Christian belief," said Republican state Rep. Randy Boyd, one of the bill's sponsors. "I don't uphold discrimination but I believe the Christian belief is more discriminated against than other things. ... I'm trying to get a happy medium here where people get their rights and other people aren't pressured into doing anything they don't believe in against their religious beliefs."
    Ben Needham, director of Project One America, a Human Rights Campaign initiative to expand LGBT rights across the South, disagreed, saying that of the many religious freedom bills traversing state legislatures, this is "one of the worst bills out there."
    "When you are promoting one person's right over another, you are discriminating," he said. "This bill is about more than marriage. It is about targeting one group in the state over another and discriminating and saying that you are protecting that group's religious freedom. That is discrimination no matter how you dress it up."

    What's included?

    The Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act passed the state Senate on Wednesday and headed to the state House, where at least one observer believes it will be sent to conference before returning to both houses for another vote.
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    The bill states that it is protecting from discrimination anyone who believes marriage is between one man and one woman, sexual relations are reserved solely for marriage and the terms male and female pertain only to a person's genetics and anatomy at birth.
    Those caveats would allow certain groups or businesses to deny services to people who engaged in premarital sex, regardless of their sexuality.
    It further states that, if they hold these beliefs, religious organizations could deny LGBT individuals marriage, adoption and foster care services, fire or refuse to employ them and decline to rent or sell them property.
    It also would allow medical professionals to refuse to participate in treatments, counseling and surgery related to "sex reassignment or gender identity transitioning." The bill goes on to say that any individuals who adhere to the aforementioned beliefs may deny wedding services -- including DJing, dressmaking and limousine rental -- while employers and school administrators would be allowed to establish "sex-specific standards or policies concerning employee or student dress or grooming."
    Among those who could deny wedding services under HB 1523:

    • DJs

    * Photographers and videographers

    • Poets

    • Wedding planners

    • Printers and publishers

    • Florists

    • Dressmakers

    • Cake or pastry artists

    • Venue rental companies

    • Limousine and car rental companies

    • Jewelry sales and service firms

    • Religious organizations

    Employers and school administrators would also be allowed to dictate access to bathrooms, spas, locker rooms "or other intimate facilities and settings," the bill states.
    The bill 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 six days in jail for refusing to give same-sex couples marriage licenses.
    Under HB 1523, clerks and their deputies would be provided a process for recusing themselves from licensing marriages, and judges, magistrates, justices of the peace and their deputies would be given a similar process for recusing themselves from performing marriages, based on their religious beliefs.
    Section 4 of the bill lays out a litany of ways the state indemnifies anyone who acts according to their religious beliefs, while Section 5 permits anyone successfully asserting a violation of the act to obtain declaratory or injunctive relief, compensatory damages and attorneys' fees.

    Protection or persecution?

    Republican state Sen. Jenifer Branning did not return CNN's calls for comment but told CNN affiliate WJTV that the bill was requested "by a number of ministers, foster care agencies, adoption agencies and a host of individuals across the state."
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    Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, provided the station a statement: "This bill simply protects those individuals from government interference when practicing their religious beliefs."
    Because the bill is still navigating the legislative process, Bryant, a Republican, will not say whether he intends to sign it, said spokesman Clay Chandler.
    "Gov. Bryant will review it if and when it reaches his desk," Chandler told CNN in an email.
    The governor made his general sentiments known earlier this week during an interview with CNN affiliate WLOX.
    "I think it gives some people -- as I appreciate it -- the right to be able to say, that's against my religious beliefs and I don't need to carry out that particular task," he told the station.
    State Sen. John Horhn, a Democrat, contended that the U.S. Supreme Court was abundantly clear last summer when it made same-sex marriage the law of the land, and said he feels HB 1523 creates a "slippery slope" and "opens the door for other discriminations."
    "I feel that everyone has a right to exercise their religious freedom. It should not extend to the point of where it discriminates against someone else," he said.
    The ACLU of Mississippi is standing behind him. Erik Fleming, the organization's director of advocacy and policy, likened the bill to segregationists' efforts last century to defend and promote their policies via religion.
    "Once you open that Pandora's box, once you create that environment, you're going back in time," he said.
    If Mississippi wants to be the Hospitality State, as the state once touted itself on its license plates, it needs to "stop finding ways to discriminate against or exclude members of our community," he said.

    Economic impact

    Fleming would like to see the business community more involved in denouncing the bill, as it was when Georgia recently considered similar legislation. Businesses were also integral in forcing amendments to a similar Mississippi bill in 2014.
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    Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, argued that the 2014 legislation started out as a "very broad bill" that would have prevented companies in the state from setting their "own standards of service." The original bill was so sweeping that, if it had passed in its original incarnation, supermarket clerks could have refused to ring up customers based on their religion or sexual orientation, he said.
    "While it seems that the current proposed bill does not appear to have the broad application on business operations that the 2014 bill had, we currently are consulting with counsel to assess the language as it continues to evolve through the process," he said.
    Earlier this week, Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, 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, 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.
    States with pending religious freedom legislation

    • Colorado

    • Hawaii

    • Iowa

    • Kentucky

    • Mississippi

    • New Mexico

    • Oklahoma

    • West Virginia

    Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

    Before Deal dealt the bill its death blow, Georgia was one of nine states considering religious freedom restoration bills, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
    Virginia OK'd a bill earlier this month, and 21 states have passed similar legislation since 1993, according to the NCSL.
    While Fleming said he wouldn't argue with anyone who called Mississippi's "the worst" of all the bills, he was reluctant to use the language himself. He did say, though, that the state ALCU chapter was particularly disturbed by a provision that defines a person as "a closely held company, partnership, association, organization, firm, cooperative, trust, society or other closely held entity operating with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction."
    Also troubling, he said, are the provisions that protect those who deny goods and services to the LGBT community.
    "This is why people are saying this is more sinister than what was going on in Georgia, because the state's affording protection," he said.

    Chamber chief: Changes likely coming

    Wilson doesn't believe the the present iteration of the bill will be the final product. He suspects it will see more amendments before going back to both houses of the Legislature for approval, and then to the governor's desk.
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    In 2014, the Mississippi Economic Council firmly stated its stance on the bill, he said:
    "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 impacting their customers and employees."
    The economic council could enter the fray again, depending on "how does this bill finally shake out," Wilson said.
    "We're watching the process, evaluating where it goes next and lending our input where we can," he said. "We will have a clearer view regarding a specific position on this measure in the coming weeks as the bill moves through the process and develops in a more final form we can evaluate."