In Mississippi, a win and a loss for LGBT equality

Advocates argue that House Bill 1523 is meant to protect religious beliefs, while critics say that the broad provision will discriminate against many people.

Justin Sellers/The Clarion-Ledger via AP
Nykolas Alford waves a rainbow-colored flag during a Human Rights Campaign protest of House Bill 1523 on the Mississippi State Capitol steps in Jackson, Tuesday.

On the same day that a federal judge struck down Mississippi’s ban on adoption by same-sex couples, the state Senate passed a sweeping religious liberty bill, that critics say is the most discriminatory measure against the LGBT community yet.

Mississippi's House Bill 1523 is one of several measures taken by various states in response to the Supreme Court's decision that legalized same-sex marriage across all US states. It comes one week after North Carolina signed a law banning any local government measures protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal recently vetoed a religious liberty bill that also aimed to allow individuals the right to deny services to gay people.

The Mississippi bill is more extensive than any similar measures in the United States, according to observers. It protects individuals, businesses, corporations, religious groups, and health-care providers from being punished for denying services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people on the basis of religious beliefs. In other words, service providers, such as photographers or doctors, would have immunity from repercussions if they choose not to serve LGBT customers or patients. The bill also allows adoptive or foster care parents to raise their children as they see fit, a provision which could lead to parents subjecting their LGBT children conversion therapy, which the state does not prohibit, say LGBT rights advocates.

Framed as a protector for "sincerely held religious beliefs," House Bill 1523, isn't meant to be discriminatory to anyone, advocates of the measure argue.

"I don’t think this bill is discriminatory, said state Sen. Jenifer Branning (R) as she presented the bill to the Senate, adding that "it takes no rights away from anyone," reported Buzzfeed.

"It gives protection to those in the state who cannot in a good conscience provide services for a same-sex marriage," she said.

"In the wake of last year's US Supreme Court decision, many Mississippians, including pastors, wanted protection to exercise their religious liberties," Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, said according to NBC. "This bill simply protects those individuals from government interference when practicing their religious beliefs."

The bill will now go back to the House for some revisions before it is sent to Gov. Phil Bryant's desk. It's expected to pass the House, since it had already passed in February, before the Senate made some changes, granting the state immunity from being sued by residents who feel that the government has infringed on their right to religious exercise. It's not clear whether the governor will sign it into law, but many suspect that he will, as he has championed religious freedoms before.

"I think it gives some people, as I appreciate it, the right to be able to say 'that's against my religious beliefs and I don’t need to carry out that particular task,' " he told WLOX on Tuesday.

A majority, 51 to 43 percent, of Mississippi residents oppose allowing small business owners to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people on religious grounds, according to a February poll conducted by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C.  

Critics have condemned the measure, some labelling it the "worst religious freedom bill to date."

"It is very broad and very dangerous," Erik Fleming, a former Mississippi legislator who is now director of advocacy and policy for the state's branch of the ACLU, told BuzzFeed. "It basically sanctions religious discrimination."

"It is reminiscent of what happened 50 or 60 years ago in this same state," Mr. Fleming told BuzzFeed. "People say that it is just religious, but there were people who had a religious belief that black and white people should be segregated, and you're opening that Pandora's box again."

Meanwhile, a Mississippi federal judge struck down the last ban on adoption for same-sex couples, citing the US Constitution's equal protection clause. The ban, which had stood since 2000, was challenged by four same-sex couples who filed the suit after the US Supreme court legalized same sex marriage across all US states.

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