Chamber: too early to know bill’s effect

Published 9:48 am Friday, April 8, 2016

Lincoln County business owners have been relatively quiet regarding House Bill 1523 or the “Religious Liberty Accommodation Act,” according to Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Garrick Combs.

“I have not gotten any personal feedback from local business at this time regarding the bill,” Combs said.

Garrick Combs

Garrick Combs

Some say the new law allowing religious groups and some private businesses to deny services to gay and transgender people is needed protection for Christians who adhere to traditional views of marriage and gender roles.

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But others, including executives at several large companies, say Republican Gov. Phil Bryant’s decision to sign the bill amounts to discrimination, even if they find same-sex marriage morally offensive.

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 will take effect July 1 and will allow religious organizations and private businesses to deny services for same-sex marriages. 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.

For example, the law would allow a church group to decline housing or adoption services to gay couples. Private businesses could refuse marriage-related services such as room rentals, cakes, photography or flowers. Any employer or school could refuse to allow a transgender person to use the bathroom of their choice.

The Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce works to attract new businesses to Brookhaven and Lincoln County, Combs said, and he does not expect the bill to affect those businesses’ interest in the area.

“I don’t have any evidence to believe that the bill will cause a positive or negative standpoint among local businesses at this time,” Combs said. “I think it is just too early in the process to see if it will affect our ability to attract businesses to the area.”

The bill may not affect local businesses in the near future, but large corporations have expressed their opposition to it.

Several industries including Toyota, Nissan North America, MGM Resorts, which owns Biloxi’s Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, as well as Pascagoula’s Huntington Ingalls Industries shipyard have all stated that the law violates their diversity and inclusion policies.

On Wednesday, the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT civil rights group, announced that executives from GE, Dow Chemical, PepsiCo, Hewlett Packard, Hyatt Hotels, Choice Hotels International and Whole Foods signed an open letter, released by the Human Rights Campaign, to Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Rep. Philip Gunn asking that the bill be repealed.

Reactions from two large business associations that had released statements opposing the bill were 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, also called for the bill’s repeal.

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

Opponents said they’re considering lawsuits for minority groups challenging state laws.