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Mississippi 'religious freedom' law faces business backlash

A group of Mississippi businesses has a message for the gay and lesbian community: Buy our stuff.
A sticker outside the Williams Wallace Salon in Jackson, Miss. promoting the \"If You're Buying, We're Selling\" campaign
A sticker outside the Williams Wallace Salon in Jackson, Miss. promoting the \"If You're Buying, We're Selling\" campaign

A group of Mississippi businesses has a message for the gay and lesbian community: Buy our stuff. 

"I'm in a business to sell a product, and I want to sell that product to everybody, and I don't care what you do in your life," said Mitchell Moore, owner of Campbell's Bakery in Jackson, Mississippi.

Two weeks ago, Mississippi became the first state to successfully pass a "religious freedom" law as part of a recent push by conservative state legislators to make it easier for businesses to refuse services to same-sex couples. The night before Mississippi Republican Governor Phil Bryant signed the bill, Moore came up with the idea for a campaign that would allow local businesses to make clear that they don't intend to discriminate against their customers. 

"The big example that all of the politicians kept giving over and over was a bakery that might have to bake a cake for a gay wedding," says Moore. "I own a bakery, no politician called me and asked if this was something we should do."

That idea blossomed into the "If You're Buying, We're Selling Campaign." Backed by local gay and lesbian rights groups, more than 500 businesses in Mississippi have requested the blue stickers associated with the campaign, which make it clear to potential gay and lesbian customers that these businesses do not intend to refuse them services.

"We started brainstorming about ideas, and he mentioned starting a page and coming with a sign that businesses could display," said Eddie Outlaw, owner of the William Wallace Salon and Fondren Barbershop in Jackson and LGBT rights activist. "We as business owners don't condone discrimination against anyone because it's wrong, because it's bad for business, and it's bad for our state." 

Outlaw reached out to Knol Aust, a graphic designer in Jackson, who designed the campaign stickers. Light blue with a rainbow line splashed across the middle, the stickers say "We don't discriminate, if you're buying we're selling." In less than a week, the campaign had run out of its first order of more than 500 stickers (one for each participating business, according to Equality Mississippi), and was ordering more to comply with outstanding requests. There are hundreds of thousands of businesses in the state.

"There were business owners in the wake of this vote who wanted to make a positive statement to say not everybody in Missisippi feels like the legislature, to take a stand to say we appreciate all people, we wanted an easy identifiable way to say we are Mississippians, and we love all Mississippians," said Melanie Deas of Equality Mississippi, which is helping finance the campaign. 

Businesses have been at the forefront of recent opposition to laws designed to allow religiously justifed discrimination. Though it at first opposed Mississippi's "religious freedom" law, the Mississippi Economic Council, which acts as the state's chamber of commerce, withdrew its objections once the language was rewritten to more closely resemble the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Blake Wilson of the MEC told msnbc he believed the revisions did not allow discrimination.

Nevertheless, anti-LGBT rights activists made clear that they interpreted the new law to allow business owners to refuse services to customers for religious reasons. Shortly after the vote, Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Center, said that the Mississippi law would allow businesses to refuse to "affirm" same-sex weddings by doing business with same-sex couples. 

Moore, who calls the law "absurd and ridiculous," is something of an unlikely gay rights champion. 

"I voted for Mitt Romney. I'm a Republican. I'm a straight white Republican male in Mississippi," Moore said. "I just wanted to get the word out that Campbell's Bakery will sell to anyone. That's what we're in business to do."