A Mississippi bill similar to the anti-LGBT legislation recently vetoed in Arizona has drawn criticism from not only religious groups, but college communities and LGBT advocates.
Religion Dispatches reported on Thursday that Senate Bill 2681, which proponents have called the “Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” will come up for a vote in the state House of Representatives on Friday.
The bill, which was approved unanimously by the Republican-dominated state Senate on Jan. 31, stipulates that state law “shall not substantially burden a person’s right to exercise [freedom] of religion” without a “compelling governmental interest.” Before being passed, the bill was amended to exclude language that was felt to be too similar to Arizona’s SB 1062, which drew criticism on a national level before being vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer (R) on Feb. 26.
But a group of five Baptist and Methodist pastors in Mississippi has written state House members urging them to reject SB 2681, arguing that, while they support business owners’ freedom to practice their religion, “we also know that there is a difference between sacred space and commercial space. When providing a service to the public, businesses cannot pick and choose whom to serve and whom to deny. This is basic discrimination and it has nothing to do with religious freedom.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also called for the bill’s dismissal, arguing in a statement that it would also open the door to race-based discrimination. The ACLU also pointed out that historically, supporters of segregation also used “religious freedom” as a justification.
“While the bill adds that a person must be substantially burdened, it still does not go far enough to protect civil liberties for all people,” the ACLU’s statement read. “It still allows private individuals and businesses to discriminate against people. It still does not protect against government funding of discrimination and still includes withholding of government benefits.”
However, a supporter of the bill, Mississippi Baptists’ Christian Action Commission director Jimmy Porter rejected the comparison in an email to state legislators, The Associated Press reported on Wednesday.
“When I hear someone speak of being discriminated against who has never been told to go to the back of the bus, who has never seen a loved one hanging from a tree by a rope, who has never been served a plate lunch from the back door of a restaurant, who has never been denied lodging in a hotel, who has had to drink from a fountain or use a restroom with a posted ‘Colored Only’ sign, who has never been denied access to the community swimming pool, all due to the God-given color of their skin, desecrate the word when it comes out of their mouth,” Porter wrote.
Meanwhile, the state chapter of the LGBT advocacy group GetEQUAL released a travel advisory on Thursday advising visitors to travel alone, book their accomodations at hotels with policies explicitly banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and stick to visiting businesses that are friendly to the LGBT communities.
“This bill is progressing at a very rapid rate, making my beautiful state a potentially dangerous place for anyone perceived as ‘different’ from the right-wing extremists who have crafted this bill,” state organizer Zach Magee was quoted as saying. “While the LGBT community — including both residents and visitors — will be negatively impacted by this bill, it is also a license to discriminate against any group seen as ‘different,’ including women, racial or ethnic minorities, or immigrants.”
The Jackson Clarion Ledger reported that lawmakers in Harrisburg, Oxford and Starksville — all of them college communities — have adopted resolutions supporting “the dignity of all residents,” specifically including gay, lesbian and transgender residents.
“University towns are integrated into the national job market more than other places,” said Starkville LGBTQ Union member Justin Dornbusch was quoted as saying. “Talk to any faculty member involved in a hiring committee, and ask them what people are usually interested in. These policies are the new normal and just as expected as public Wi-Fi, decent dining and good entertainment. Mississippi can only become more attractive to professional people looking for jobs in the South.”
[Image: “Gay Pride Parade” via Shutterstock]