A bill that would allow Mississippians to refuse services to gay couples based on their religious beliefs is one step away from the Governor’s Desk. Supporters of the measure say House Bill 1523 protects religious freedom. Opponents believe it to be unconstitutional leaving the state open to costly lawsuits.
“By a vote of 31 yeas and 17 nays, the bill passes. . .”
The Mississippi Senate approved House Bill 1523 Wednesday, by a vote along party lines.
Otherwise known as the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” the measure allows government officials, like county clerks, to deny same-sex marriage licenses to gay couples based on religious beliefs. It also extends the protections to private businesses and faith-based organizations to refuse lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender couple any service from wedding planning to apartment leasing to some medical treatments.
Freshman Senator Jenifer Branning of Philadelphia presented the bill. She says only has one goal.
“This bill, in no way, allows for discrimination by one person against another,’ Branning says. “What is does is it prohibits your government from discriminating against you with regard to your religious beliefs. That’s the bottom line.”
In all debate lasted a little more than three hours with many Democrats arguing the bill WAS discriminatory against the LGBT community in Mississippi. Many drew distinct parallels between this bill and Jim Crowe laws. Senator John Horhn of Jackson says Mississippi’s history does not need to repeat itself.
“We don’t need to pass this legislation,” says Horhn. “We don’t need to put another stain on Mississippi. We don’t need to demonstrate to the rest of the world how backward we are in our thinking.”
Other Democrats tried to appeal to fiscal conservatives by arguing that the state would spend millions defending the law in federal court. However, Republicans like Angela Hill of Picayune argued the bill would uphold the constitution.
“Would you agree that right now without this, that that protection to a pastor or to a religious organization that would not want to perform a same-sex marriage or would not want to adopt to a gay couple, that this is in jeopardy?” asks Hill. “They are in jeopardy, right now, of their religious beliefs and that their organizations are in jeopardy without this law?”
The measure has drawn controversy since Republican Speaker of the House Philip Gunn of Clinton first introduced it in January. On Tuesday, protestors gathered on the steps of the Capitol calling on lawmakers to kill the bill.
Stephan Thomas and his fiancé drove an hour-and-one-half from Meridian to take part in the protest. He says the measure is a violation of his human rights.
“I can’t go into a bakery, so to speak, and get a cake made for my wedding. A transgendered kid can’t go into a restroom that they feel like they identify with. It gives people the tool to legally discriminate against other people.”
However, supporters of the bill believe it will protect their first amendment right to religious freedom.
Ron Matis represents the Mississippi District of the United Pentecostal Church. He was sitting in the Senate Gallery when the bill passed. He says it was a good day.
“It’s about letting people know that pastors, people of faith, aren’t going to be discriminated on, against, for their sincerely held religious beliefs,” Matis says.
But when asked if Pentecostal Churches in Mississippi were being asked to perform same-sex marriages. . .
“I wouldn’t want to comment on that,” says Matis. “Today, it’s about the fact that we got a good bill passed.”
In general, the bill is a response to last year’s Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage across the nation. Nine other states, including North Carolina and Georgia, are considering similar bills.
Erik Flemming is with the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi. He says 1523 is potentially narrower than those measures.
“Based on what other people are saying, including our national office, they say this one is a little bit more extreme than even Georgia,” says Flemming. “We would like for this bill either to just die or be altered in a way where it doesn’t discriminate against the LGBT community.”
The bill will now head back to the House for one final check before it goes onto Governor Phil Bryant, where he will likely sign it into law.