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Mississippi bill would let businesses rebuff LGBT people

The Mississippi Senate has passed a bill that gives businesses the right to deny service to members of the LGBT community based on religious or moral beliefs without facing retribution from the state.

The Religious Liberty Accommodation Act passed Wednesday (March 30) and now heads back to conference in the House, moving on a tailwind of national criticism from major corporations and human rights groups and praise from conservative Christians.

The Human Rights Campaign called the acts of Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and the Mississippi Senate “shameful” and called on Gov. Phil Bryant to veto the bill.

HRC president Chad Griffin called on Bryant to emulate “Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard, who understood that discrimination in any form is unacceptable. Or will he align himself with North Carolina’s Governor McCrory, who, in sanctioning discrimination, has harmed both his constituents and the economy of North Carolina?”

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The Civil and Human Rights Coalition compared the bill to Jim Crow. If Bryant does not veto they bill, they said, Mississippi will be set back to the time under former Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, who once called God “the original segregationist.”

Thursday afternoon, Nissan North America, a major Mississippi employer, released a statement on the bill saying the company policy prohibits “discrimination of any type, and we oppose any legislation that would allow discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.”

Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz described the bill, HB1523, as “horrific.”

The ACLU’s Mississippi executive director, Jennifer Riley-Collins, said in an emailed statement, “Freedom of religion is one of our most fundamental rights as Americans, but that freedom does not give any of us the right to harm or mistreat others.”

However, Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, a national Christian organization based in Tupelo, Miss., applauded the House for a bill he said  protects Christians from discrimination and is not legal discrimination against the LGBT community.

“If you feel like homosexuality is a sin then, if you’re forced as a business to participate in that sin, that’s a violation of your religious freedom,” Wildmon said. “The other side should show love and compassion to the Christians by not forcing them to do something against their religion. These people are out to punish the Christians who don’t want to participate.”

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Referencing providing a service to a same-sex couple who wants to get married, Wildmon said, “The owner doesn’t go, ‘Well, are you gay? Then you can’t buy a cake.’ That’s insane.”

He added, however, that the government should not be able to force a business to provide a service that is against their religious beliefs.

“They shouldn’t be forced by the government to do that,” he said. “That’s not unloving or unkind. That’s somebody who has a conviction about that and they don’t want to participate in it. Just like if somebody doesn’t want to drive an alcoholic to a bar … I don’t want to participate in that. He can go on his own if wants to. They can get married if they want to.”

When asked if he felt denying service to members of the LGBT community was reminiscent of Jim Crow, Wildmon said: “I don’t see somebody’s skin color being compared to somebody’s sexual behavior. It’s a behavior. People have to act on it. They might say that they were born that way or can’t help it but that’s different than somebody’s skin color.

“A person being gay or lesbian is by definition a sexual behavior. Being black or Hispanic or white, you’re born with that.”

The National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce said,  “It’s morally unacceptable that hardworking, tax-paying LGBT Mississippians can continue to be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, or denied service in restaurants and shops simply for being who they are, now with the full support of their elected representatives.”

Some Christians see the bill very differently than Wildmon. Chris Donald, a United Methodist pastor and chaplain at Millsaps College, helped author a letter to The Clarion-Ledger, signed by 10 ministers from across the state,  that objects to the bill as “concerned citizens and as followers of Jesus Christ.”

It also concludes that the “liberty” bill would backfire by allowing the state “to preference one religious belief over another, ultimately limiting liberty.”

(Sarah Fowler reported this story for the Clarion-Ledger)

This story is available for republication.

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Sarah Fowler