Mississippi passes Arizona-style anti-gay bill, headed to governor’s desk

Senate Bill 2681 could legalize discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Mississippians – in the name of religious liberty.

The Mississippi state flag, which still bears the symbol of the Confederacy. Photo by Stuart Seeger. / Flickr

The Mississippi state flag, which still bears the symbol of the Confederacy. Photo by Stuart Seeger. / Flickr

Both houses of the Mississippi legislature Tuesday overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 2681, which has been dubbed Mississippi’s “turn away the gays” or “license to discriminate” bill. The House passed the bill, named the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, on a vote of 79-43.

Calling the bill “far-reaching,” the Human Rights Campaign in a press release called on Gov. Phil Bryant to veto SB 2681.

“While there were many efforts to correct the clearly problematic elements of this legislation, the bill still has the effect of making LGBT people strangers to the law,” said HRC State Legislative Director Sarah Warbelow. ” 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 state-wide protections.”

It’s the first such bill to pass since Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a similar bill in February, after a national backlash threatened state business and the state’s plans to host the Super Bowl in 2015.

“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,” said Warbelow.

During Senate debate, Sen. David Blount (D) also warned of the potential of a huge negative economic impact.

Sen. Derrick Simmons (D) – an African American – drew on personal experience to explain his opposition to the bill.

“If you have never been discriminated against, you don’t know how that feels, you don’t know how to feel discrimination,” Simmons said. “I urge you to vote against this bill because it legalizes discrimination.”

Sen. Phillip Gandy, one of the bill’s authors, called the opposition to SB 2681 “intolerant.” He then pointed to the 2012 boycott of Chik-Fil-A as an example of that intolerance. Gay rights organizations mounted a boycott of the fast-food chain in 2012 after it was revealed that Chik-Fil-A was donating to anti-gay groups, including anti-gay groups that were pushing for a law in Uganda that would’ve instituted the death penalty for gay people.

Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, denounced SB 2681 Tuesday.

“As a minister, it’s clear that this extreme bill is about legalizing discrimination, not protecting religious freedom,” Beach-Ferrara said. “Furthermore, the broad implications of this bill could result in discrimination aimed toward many communities.”

“There are Christians who have concerns about this bill,” Sen. Blount said. Blount originally voted for the bill in January, before coming out against it after he was made aware of the discriminatory implications of it.  He apologized on Facebook in February for his vote. Blount voted against it on Tuesday.

In this email, Dr. Jimmy Porter of the Mississippi Baptist Convention called on pastors to urge their congregants to ask their representatives to vote for SB 2681.

In this email, Dr. Jimmy Porter of the Mississippi Baptist Convention called on pastors to urge their congregants to ask their representatives to vote for SB 2681.

While many Christian organizations came out against the bill, it was heavily pushed for by religious right organizations. In March, Jimmy Porter of the Mississippi Baptist Convention-funded Christian Action Commission sent out an email threatening action against any Republicans who voted against it. The following is an excerpt of Jimmy Porter’s email:

I read via Twitter this morning that 20 Republican Representatives are allegedly against RFRA. 

Out of respect for you and your position you need to know these names are slowly emerging.  One person has been dubbed the “Bell Cow” of this opposition whose district is one of the most conservative and most religious in our entire state. 

The fact is that one’s position on this piece of legislation can be made public whether a vote is taken or not.  The leadership of the House will take a lot of heat for its failure if that is the case but it will be undeserved.  The Christian Action Commission will work diligently to ensure the blame will be laid at the feet of these 20 alleged Republicans.  Approximately 60,000 Baptist households will read about it and know the truth.  Add to that Pentecostal households, members of the Tea Party, followers of American Family Association, the Liberty Council and the Family Research Council, etc., and you begin to see the widespread interest in this bill.

Probably 90 to 95% of your constituents support freedom of speech and freedom of religion. I do believe it would be wise to consider whether or not it is expedient to vote against this bill.  

Republican House Rep. Toby Barker, who announced his opposition to the bill in February, was the only Republican to vote against the bill.

Family Research Council (FRC) head Tony Perkins – a controversial figure on the religious right long embroiled in scandal over his dealings with the KKK and white supremacist organizations – praised Mississippi Republicans for passing the bill.

“I commend Mississippi legislators for reading the bill and consulting the facts and not yielding to the wild distortions of the frenzied opposition of anti-religious liberty activists who caused other elected officials to retreat in recent weeks,” Perkins said.

“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.”

FRC has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Opponents of the bill were planning a rally Thursday as part of their Ethical Thursdays (similar to Moral Mondays in other Southern states like North Carolina). The protest will begin in Smith Park in Jackson at noon, with a prayer vigil following at 5:30 at the Capitol.

A Washington Post poll on March 5 showed that 81% of Americans think businesses should not be allowed to discriminate against gays or lesbians.

Read our report here for more on the bill’s content.

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Ashton Pittman

Ashton is the founder and editor of Deep South Daily. He studied journalism and political science at the University of Southern Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter @ashtonpittman.

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