Mississippi’s Senate passed House Bill 1523, also known as the religious liberty bill, by a vote of 31-17 on March 30.
The bill, formally named the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” allows a person who chooses to allow or deny individuals certain goods and services based on “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions” to be free from government action or discrimination. H.B. 1523 prevents the state government from taking action against a person or organization for any decisions regarding the following: employment of an individual who expresses different beliefs or convictions; rental, sale or occupancy of a building under the person’s control; services, facilities, recognition and accommodations regarding marriage or the performance of a marriage; providing treatments, counseling or surgeries related to gender identity or reassignment; and access to bathrooms, spas, locker rooms and other sex-specific areas.
Republican Sen. Jenifer Branning called the bill a solution to problems that have arisen from the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage. In the House, Democratic Rep. Adrienne Wooten was quoted as saying that the bill opened the doors not for religious freedom but for the right to discriminate against those with different religious beliefs.
This right would include state employees and those acting on behalf of the state who choose to refuse a marriage license or the performance of a marriage based on their beliefs or convictions. While the bill prevents them from interfering with the work of others and they must submit written notice to the appropriate office before they begin refusing, it does allow them to express their beliefs freely within the workplace as long as it is “consistent with the time, place, manner and frequency” of other expressed beliefs and convictions.
However, H.B. 1523 does not protect all religious beliefs. Instead, Section 2 lists only three items as “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions protected by this act”: that marriage is between a man and woman, that sexual relations are to be reserved for that marriage, and that “male” and “female” refer to an individual’s sex as determined at their birth.
Furthermore, the bill defines a person as being any small group, sole proprietorship, religious organization or individual with those beliefs. No attempt was made to define what made a belief “sincerely held” or what might prevent a group, business or organization from being labelled as religious or morally convicted.
Even with these gray areas, the bill was passed by the House and the Senate. Sen. John Horhn, a Democrat, filed a motion to reconsider after the Senate vote. If denied, the bill will continue on to the governor for approval or veto. In a March 29 interview that aired on WLOX, Gov. Phil Bryant did not say what his intentions were regarding the bill but admitted that he did not find it discriminatory.
“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,” said Bryant.
Meanwhile, ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director Jennifer Riley-Collins stated that the ACLU is “deeply disturbed” by the passing of H.B. 1523.
“The Mississippi State Legislature should look for ways to bring Mississippians together, not divide us along religious lines,” said Riley-Collins. “The ACLU of Mississippi urges the state legislature to kill this divisive bill in conference.”
This is not the first bill of its kind. Days before the Mississippi Senate’s vote, Republican Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a bill that would allow faith-based organizations the right to refuse to perform marriages and would repeal conflicting laws within the state. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, also a Republican, signed a law that would require students to use the bathroom that corresponded with the sex listed on their birth certificates and would prevent local governments from passing anti-discrimination laws.
In the case of Mississippi and H.B. 1523, citizens must wait to see if the bill makes it to the governor’s desk. Bryant will then be given five days to decide whether to veto the bill. If no decision is made, the bill will automatically become law.