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Mississippi 'religious freedom' bill on life support

Mississippi's version of religious freedom legislation is on life support, after similar bills have failed in other states.
A man holds up a flag during a rally for gay marriage, June 26, 2013.
A man holds up a flag during a rally for gay marriage, June 26, 2013.

Mississippi's version of religious freedom legislation is on life support after state lawmakers voted to "study" the bill rather than risk a vote LGBT rights activists believe they might have lost.

Though the proposal is technically still alive, Mississippi represents the latest setback for the religious right's effort to pass legislation they say is meant to protect religious freedom. LGBT rights activists -- who say some version of the original bill could pass before the legislature adjourns in April -- describe the efforts as an attempt to legitimize discrimination.

LGBT rights supporters said even the toned-down version Mississippi was considering would have been broader than the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and could have sanctioned discrimination on the basis of religion, by allowing people to claim religious exemptions to laws barring discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion or national origin. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not banned in Mississippi.

"It doesn't have some of the problematic provisions as Arizona, but it's still troubling," said Eunice Rho of the American Civil Liberties Union referring to legislation recently vetoed by Arizona Republican Governor Jan Brewer. "They aren't taking affirmative steps to ensure this law can't be used to harm other people in that way."

Similar legislation has recently failed in about a dozen states. Lawmakers in Mississippi sought to preserve their proposal by altering their version of a state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act to omit language that provoked backlashes in other states. Namely, changes to Mississippi's bill mean that businesses weren't expressly allowed to use religion as a defense in a lawsuit filed by private individuals -- language LGBT rights activists said was designed to allow business owners to discriminate against gays and lesbians in the name of religion.

The recent rush of religious freedom legislation was prompted in part by lawsuits filed by same-sex couples against businesses that refused to provide wedding services in states that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

As in other states, the local business community at first opposed the bill. The Mississippi Economic Council released a statement saying that "MEC opposes efforts that would intentionally or unintentionally prevent Mississippi businesses from implementing and enforcing non discrimination policies impacting their customers and employees." Nevertheless, the MEC later approved proposed changes altering the bill so that it explicitly stated that it was not intended to allow employees of private business to assert religion as a defense against their employers. 

"It's not because we just don't want to have our employees sue us, by taking business out of it, we think it has taken out the danger of anyone being discriminated against," said Blake Wilson, CEO of the MEC. "If we felt in any way, this would infringe on anyone's rights, we would continue to object to it."

LGBT rights groups feel that lingering ambiguities in the altered language could nevertheless still leave room to sanction discrimination.

 On Wednesday, a national group of black clergy sent a letter to Mississippi lawmakers saying that "These misguided efforts eerily echo Jim Crow laws that robbed African-Americans of their basic human dignity." The bill is being championed by Republican Mississippi House Rep. Andy Gipson, who reacted to President Barack Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage by posting a Bible passage on his Facebook page that calls for punishing homosexual sex with death.

The bill were designed to prevent the state from placing a "substantial burden" on religious beliefs absent a "compelling governmental interest." But unlike the federal version of the law, the proposed Mississippi bill defined "substantial burden" to include "withholding benefits, assessing criminal, civil or administrative penalties or exclusion from governmental programs or access to governmental facilities." Someone who feels their religious beliefs were "substantially burdened" by state and local laws could use religion as a defense when the state tries to enforce them. 

The Mississippi House instead adopted an amendment to the legislation Wednesday that creates a "Religious Freedoms Study Committee" charged with the responsibility of "studying and preparing a report regarding proposed legislation that protects the religious freedoms of the citizens of the State of Mississippi."

The Mississippi-based Christian Action Commission, a conservative religious group that has been backing the legislation, declared victory. "This maneuver kept the bill alive to give time to make the bill stronger and clarify the confusion others have that this bill is about discrimination -- which it is not," wrote Rob Chambers of the Christian Action Commission. "Pray that the bill is strengthened and that the misinformation that this bill is about discrimination is cleared up."

LGBT rights supporters are also heartened by the fact that even in a state as bright red as Mississippi, legislation they see as blessing discrimination in the name of religion has proven controversial and difficult to pass.

"This is not, you know, Vermont," said Rho.