Where Arizona failed, Mississippi has managed to succeed with the state legislature passing what is essentially a “Turn Away the Gays” bill. Here’s what you need to know about this potentially discriminatory legislation.
The legislation, called Senate Bill 2681 or the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed the Mississippi House in a 79-43 vote and in the Senate by 37-14. Unlike the Arizona version of this legislation, the bill is designed to mirror the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as other legislation that has been passed in about 18 states that are all designed to mimic federal law. Lawmakers say the bill is needed to ensure that people can readily express their faith due to isolated incidents, which have now been remedied, of people running up against opposition when, for instance, they try to build new places of worship.
So what’s the problem with this legislation, then? Well, it’s a combination of both how the law has been framed and its incredibly suspect timing.
The legislation has gone through a number of different drafts as fears that an Arizona-style backlash gave the Republican lawmakers supporting the bill pause. As such, a lot of the overtly hostile language has been removed. However, the legislation remains unduly broad. For instance, the bill’s title reads:
An act to enact the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act; to provide that state action shall not substantially burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion.
It then qualifies what it means by these terms in the following, illuminating ways:
a) “Burden” means any action that directly or indirectly constrains, inhibits, curtails or denies the exercise of religion by any person or compels any action contrary to a person’s exercise of religion. [...]
(b) “Compelling governmental interest” means a government interest of the highest magnitude that cannot otherwise be achieved without burdening the exerciser of religion.
(c) “Exercise of religion” means the practice or observance of religion. “Exercise of religion” includes, but is not limited to, the ability to act or the refusal to act in a manner that is substantially motivated by one’s sincerely held religious belief, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.
Lawmakers who support this bill claim that all it will do is ensure that no legislation or regulation could be used to make religious people act against their religious conscience.
However, critics charge that the bill’s broad definition of religious freedom is clearly designed to allow room for the religious to deny goods or services and to practically ignore civil rights legislation, something that in particular could be exploited to turn away LGBTs, refuse to recognize their marriages even in secular employment, and in general discriminate against the LGBT community under the guise of religious rights.
The particular problem, critics say, is that there is no qualifying language in the bill to limit the scope of these religious exemptions. For example, doctors or nurses could decide they don’t want to treat someone on grounds of the person’s sexual orientation, particularly if that person is seeking help for a sexual health problem, because they might say to do so could somehow be seen as “condoning” the person’s identity or life choices.
For reasons like this, the legislation has been dubbed a “segregation” bill because, while it is true other states have similar legislation, the intent behind this legislation seems clear: it is meant as an answer to the Religious Right’s fears about the dawning reality of gay equality and the Right’s belief that they should have the special privilege to not have to follow LGBT-inclusive anti-discrimination laws.
Said the ACLU in a press release about the bill:
The law could allow individuals and businesses to bring challenges against what they view as substantial government burdens against religion, including challenging existing nondiscrimination laws. Legislatures across the country, including in Georgia, Idaho, Maine, and Ohio, have rejected similar measures. On February 26, 2014, Governor Jan Brewer vetoed Arizona’s version. Bills are still pending in Missouri and Oklahoma. “Even though the Mississippi legislature removed some of the egregious language from Arizona’s infamous SB 1062, we are disappointed that it passed this unnecessary law and ignored the national, public outcry against laws of this nature,” said Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel with the ACLU. “We will continue to fight in state legislatures across the country to ensure that religious freedom remains a shield, not a sword.”
Despite these criticisms and concerns, Governor Phil Bryant has now signed the legislation. Opponents therefore believe that the best way to fight the bill will be to take it before the courts. If the legislation is not put on hold thanks to a court challenge, it will come into force on July 1st of this year.
Photo credits: Thinkstock.