New Religious Freedom Bill In Miss. Could Open The Door For Discrimination

| by Jared Keever

The Mississippi legislature passed a religious freedom bill on Tuesday that many believe will open the door to discrimination against gays and lesbians by businesses on the basis of religion. The Washington Post reports that the bill passed the Republican-controlled House and Senate by wide margins. 

The bill struggled through the legislature for months as it missed key deadlines. Lawmakers removed some controversial language to help it along. The slimmed-down version that passed earlier this week is similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, according to MSNBC.

Opponents argue that language in the bill is still problematic. The American Civil Liberties Union had pushed to have specific wording placed in the bill that would prevent it from being used to protect discrimination. 

“While this is an improvement upon the language that the legislature previously contemplated, it still falls short,” Eunice Rho of the ACLU told MSNBC. “The language still exposes virtually every branch, office, and agency of the government to litigation, which will require taxpayer funds to defend.”

Similar bills have been proposed in about a dozen states. One, in Arizona, made it through the legislature and landed on Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk, but she vetoed the bill amid a huge national backlash. Opponents argued that the law would allow a baker, for example, to deny services to a gay couple wanting to purchase a wedding cake. Under the law as it was proposed, the baker could cite a religious objection as reason for opposing gay marriage and denying the production of the cake.

Lawmakers in Mississippi believe they can avoid such a backlash by closely following the RFRA. 

Blake Wilson of the Mississippi Economic Council represents businesses in the state and said lawmakers had been receptive to business concerns regarding discrimination.

“We’ve been in plenty of contact with the key folks, and we’ve distributed our position extensively in both houses,” he said. “The legislature understands the need to follow the federal approach, and if they do that we’re fine, we’re not going to have a discrimination problem.”

According to a story on the Huffington Post's website, Gov. Phil Bryant, Republican, has said he will sign the bill into law.

Sources: Washington Post, MSNBC, Huffington Post