Local legislators support religious bill

Published 10:21 am Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Gov. Phil Bryant on Tuesday signed House Bill 1523 into law amid criticism from large businesses, civil rights groups and legal experts.

Officially titled the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” the law would prevent “discriminatory action” by the government against people who believe that marriage should exist only between a man and a woman, that sex should only happen in such a marriage and that, “male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex”.

The law allows religious organizations and private businesses to deny services for same-sex marriages,  and allows businesses to implement sex-specific dress codes. It also contains previsions for state employees and officials to opt-out of authorizing same-sex marriages, though provisions must be made for the marriage to be carried out in accordance with state and federal law.

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Lincoln County’s Republican delegation supported the measure. Sen. Sally Doty and Reps. Becky Currie and Vince Mangold all voted in favor of the bill. Doty was unavailable for comment. Currie said she voted for the bill to prevent discrimination against Christians.

“We hear a lot about not discriminating against Muslims and other religions,” Currie said. “What we’re saying is we also want to not discriminate against Christians. Around the world and in America, Christians seem to be taking the brunt of discrimination.”

Those concerns may be unconstitutional, according to law professors at the University of Mississippi, Mississippi College, Washington University in St. Louis and Columbia University in New York City, who all said in a joint statement that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment forbids the government from singling out religious beliefs for favor.

Reaction from two large business associations that had released statements opposing the bill was muted late Tuesday.

“The Mississippi Manufacturers Association’s position continues to reflect the concerns manufacturers have with this bill and its potential to conflict with their policies of diversity and inclusion. However, the MMA respects the wishes of the Legislature and governor,” one trade group said.

Some individual companies were more pointed, though. San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co., which has a 350-employee distribution center in Canton, called for the bill’s repeal.

“We believe equality and nondiscrimination fosters talent and innovation,” the company announced on Twitter.

Opponents also said they’re considering lawsuits, a more traditional form of opposition in Mississippi for minority groups challenging state laws.

“There’s an urgency here because people feel under attack,” said Rob Hill, Mississippi director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group. “You can rest assured that we’re doing everything we can to make sure LGBTQ Mississippians don’t have to fear living in the state that is home to them and the state they love.”

Democratic state Attorney General Jim Hood said he’ll make “case-by-case” decisions on whether to defend the lawsuits, warning that the bill doesn’t override federal law or constitutional rights.

“If a person or government official violates a federal statute or constitutional provision, House Bill 1523 will not protect that official from a federal lawsuit or from potential personal liability under federal law,” Hood said in a statement.