Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant on Thursday signed a bill into law that many warn could ratify discrimination against gays and lesbians.
The bill, called the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, formally states that the government cannot interfere with a person’s exercise of religion, absent a compelling reason. The law also adds “In God We Trust” to the state seal.
While supporters cite the bill as a step to defend religious freedom, it has come under fire for its similarity to bills proposed in Kansas and Arizona that many allege are simply covert ways of allowing businesses to refuse service to LGBT Americans.
Under Title 1, Chapter 3, Section 39 of the Mississippi state code, a “person” is legally defined to include both human beings and “all public and private corporations.” This effectively extends the unimpeded right to practice religion to all businesses in the state, as well as state agencies, theoretically allowing them to refuse service to customers based on religious objections. Mississippi has no law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Though the bill is worded simply to guarantee religious protections to individuals and businesses, supporters have openly and specifically cited the need to protect religious Mississippians who do not wish to serve LGBT people. Tony Perkins, head of the anti-gay-rights Family Research Council, pushed for passage and was present for its signing into law. In a statement praising the Mississippi legislature, he singled out refusing service to same-sex couples as a driving force behind the bill.
"Whether it's someone like Pastor Telsa DeBerry, who was hindered by the Holly Springs city government from building a new church in the downtown area, or a wedding vendor, whose orthodox Christian faith will not allow her to affirm same-sex 'marriage,' the provisions of RFRA would apply to prevent the government from discriminating against religious exercise,” Perkins said in a statement.
Organizations such as the Americans Civil Liberties Union and the gay Human Rights Campaign continue to insist that the bill is simply a front for allowing discrimination.
“Before Mississippi has had the opportunity to robustly discuss the lived experiences of LGBT people, this bill would hollow out any non-discrimination protections at the local level or possible future statewide protections,” Sarah Warbelow, HRC's state legislative director, told the Washington Blade. “Just as we’ve seen in other states, this bill is bad for business, bad for the state’s reputation, and most of all, bad for Mississippians.”