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Mississippi enacts 'religious freedom' bill

Amid growing backlash to anti-LGBT legislation in North Carolina, other red states are following in the lion’s den.
Protesters call for Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant to veto House Bill 1523, which they says will allow discrimination against LGBT people, during a rally outside the Governor's Mansion in Jackson, Miss., April 4, 2016. (Photo by Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
Protesters call for Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant to veto House Bill 1523, which they says will allow discrimination against LGBT people, during a rally outside the Governor's Mansion in Jackson, Miss., April 4, 2016.

Amid growing backlash to anti-LGBT legislation in North Carolina -- which escalated Tuesday with an announcement from PayPal that the company was canceling its planned expansion into Charlotte -- other red states look poised to follow suit.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant on Tuesday signed into law House Bill 1523, a measure that prevents government agencies from taking action against state employees, individuals, organizations and private associations that deny services based on religious objections -- usually interpreted to mean religious objections to same-sex marriage, transgender rights and even unmarried sexual relationships. The law is set to go into effect in July.

In a statement, Bryant, a Republican, defended his decision to sign the bill, saying it “merely reinforces the rights which currently exist to the exercise of religious freedom as stated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

“This bill does not limit any constitutionally protected rights or actions of any citizen of this state under federal or state laws,” Bryant said. “It does not attempt to challenge federal laws, even those which are in conflict with the Mississippi Constitution, as the Legislature recognizes the prominence of federal law in such limited circumstances. The legislation is designed in the most targeted manner possible to prevent government interference in the lives of the people from which all power to the state is derived.”

Opponents, however, view the law as discriminatory toward LGBT people and single mothers.

“This is a sad day for the state of Mississippi and for the thousands of Mississippians who can now be turned away from businesses, refused marriage licenses, or denied housing, essential services and needed care based on who they are,” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, in a statement. “This bill flies in the face of the basic American principles of fairness, justice and equality and will not protect anyone’s religious liberty. Far from protecting anyone from ‘government discrimination’ as the bill claims, it is an attack on the citizens of our states, and it will serve as the Magnolia State’s badge of shame.”

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will vote Wednesday on HB 1840, a measure that if enacted will allow counselors and therapists to deny service to a patient if doing so were to conflict with the counselor’s “sincerely held religious belief.” The bill already passed the state’s Republican-controlled Senate in February and stands a good shot at clearing the House as well, according to Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, who has been tracking the legislation.

The bills mark the latest developments in what LGBT advocates see as a concerted push among conservative legislatures to blunt or roll back the achievements of the LGBT rights movement, which culminated most notably with the Supreme Court’s decision last year to make marriage equality the law of the land. Although same-sex couples are now able to marry in all 50 states, the LGBT community -- particularly transgender Americans -- have since encountered new barriers to equality, often in the form of state laws that provide legal cover to religious opponents of same-sex marriage and nondiscrimination protections.

North Carolina has attracted the most negative attention so far this year for its hastily enacted law banning local nondiscrimination ordinances that shield LGBT people in the absence of statewide protections. That measure, House Bill 2, also prohibits transgender people from using public restrooms in line with their gender identities. In addition to PayPal, which canceled plans on Tuesday to employ more than 400 people in skilled jobs at a new global operations center in Charlotte, American Airlines, Apple, and the NBA are among the big companies now putting pressure on North Carolina to repeal the legislation.

Yet House Bill 2 is far from the only measure put forth this year in an apparent effort to enshrine discrimination against LGBT people. Quite the contrary, in fact -- it’s one of more than 200 anti-LGBT bills that the Human Rights Campaign is currently tracking in 32 states.

Mississippi is one of 12 states where no Fortune 500 companies are headquartered, and as such, is perhaps less likely to experience the kind of corporate backlash seen in North Carolina or in Georgia, where last month Republican Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a different “religious freedom” bill. But several corporations with a presence in the state -- including Nissan North America, Chevron, Huntington Ingalls Industries, MGM Resorts and Entergy -- all voiced opposition to HB 1523 last week. Tennessee, meanwhile, is home to several Fortune 500 companies -- including FedEx, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity for all operations -- and could see crippling economic consequences to passing legislation seen as anti-LGBT.