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Senate votes to negotiate controversial religious-practices bill

Jackson-capitol_view_rgbJACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers could try to write a final version of a religious-practices bill that has sparked concerns about anti-gay discrimination.

The Senate yesterday voted to send Senate Bill 2681 into negotiations with the House.

The two sides face a Monday deadline to file a final version of the bill, known as the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act. If they don’t meet that deadline, the bill will die. If they do reach a compromise, it would be sent to both chambers for a vote by the middle of next week.

The original version passed the Senate 48-0 on Jan. 31. It said government cannot put a substantial burden on religious practice without a compelling reason. The Senate debate that day focused primarily on a provision Republican Gov. Phil Bryant had requested, to add “In God We Trust” to the state seal.

There was nothing said during that debate about the bill’s similarities to an Arizona proposal that, at the time, was being broadly criticized as a way to let people cite religious beliefs in refusing service to gay people, such as not baking a cake for a wedding or commitment ceremony. Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, eventually vetoed that bill after business groups said it could hurt the state’s economy.

After the Mississippi bill passed the Senate, the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics started calling on the House to kill the bill.

On March 12, the House diluted the religious-practices provisions by turning those parts of the bill into a study group, but kept the part about changing the state seal. That version of the bill passed the House 82-35.

The state’s influential Southern Baptist lobbying group, Christian Action Commission, supports the original version.

The bill’s main sponsor, Republican Sen. Phillip Gandy of Waynesboro, is a Baptist minister. He told The Associated Press yesterday that if his bill becomes law, Mississippi residents could cite their religious beliefs just as Hobby Lobby is doing now in its court challenge of contraceptive coverage mandated by the federal health overhaul law.

“People of faith could use this as a shield to protect their constitutional rights, their religious rights,” Gandy said.

Ryan Brans, a 22-year-old Gulfport resident, participated in a gay-rights rally Wednesday in Jackson. Brans said she and her girlfriend, Elizabeth Parker, intend to marry in 2017, although same-sex marriage is illegal in Mississippi. Brans also said she hopes lawmakers kill the religious-practices bill because she worries it will embolden people to refuse service to gay people in restaurants, hotels and other places. She also said minority religious groups could face discrimination.

“We don’t want this bill. It’s not fair,” Brans said.

Similar religious-practices bills were filed this year in several states, including Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee. A bill was withdrawn in Ohio, and similar measures stalled in Idaho and Kansas.

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