By TED CARTER
Mississippi business organizations and the state’s major employers ultimately did not have influence sufficient to dissuade Gov. Phil Bryant from signing House Bill 1523, legislation the governor says protects religious freedoms but opponents say legalizes discrimination against gay people and others.
Putting aside protests from business groups and businesses across the state, Bryant Tuesday morning gave his official blessing to the bill and proclaimed it a necessary step to ensure religious liberty is maintained. The law, which goes into effect July 1, allows circuit court clerks, faith-based organizations and businesses to refuse service to gay people and others.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi said the sanctioned discrimination by religiously affiliated organizations includes hospitals, schools, shelters and others. The discrimination, the ACLU said, can be directed at “LGBT people, single mothers, and vulnerable young people in Mississippi.”
Supporters say the law is sorely needed to protect religious freedoms in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriages.
In a statement accompanying the signing notice, Bryant said:
“I am signing HB 1523 into law to protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions of individuals, organizations and private associations from discriminatory action by state government or its political subdivisions.”
Bryant in his statement insisted HB 1523 is constitutional and does not attempt to challenge federal law.
In its early reaction, the ACLU of Mississippi said the signing marked “a sad day” for 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.”
Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi, did not say whether the organization will challenge HB 1523 in court, but she noted the ACLU is fighting anti-LGBT laws across the country. Earlier this week, the ACLU, the ACLU of North Carolina, Lambda Legal and Equality North Carolina filed a lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s sweeping anti-LGBT law, Riley-Collins said.
The day before Bryant’s bill signing, the 2,100-member Mississippi Manufacturers Association joined the Mississippi Economic Council in denouncing HB 1523, which the Legislature passed last week and set off an uproar across the state.
Their denunciations have followed similar condemnations from major Mississippi employers such as Nissan, Toyota, Ingalls Shipbuilding, MGM Resorts and Casinos and such national companies as AT&T, General Electric and others.
In the days leading to Tuesday’s signing, Bryant found himself stuck between disappointing Mississippi’s business leaders in a huge way or encountering the wrath of his evangelical and culturally conservative base.
The Manufacturers Association opposition statement zeroed-in on economic development — one of Bryant’s prized endeavors.
“We have seen the negative attention that Georgia and North Carolina have received on this issue and have now seen the attention shift towards Mississippi,” the organization said, adding the measure causes it “grave” concern. “MMA fears that future economic development opportunities will be jeopardized if HB 1523 is signed into law.”
Enacting the legislation could set back recent successes in portraying Mississippi as a tolerant state, the Manufacturers Association said in closing its statement. “MMA respectfully calls on the Legislature to reconsider their stance on HB 1523 and for Gov. Phil Bryant to veto this bill before it causes any more harm to Mississippi’s image,” it said.
The MMA emphasized that the measure is “in direct opposition to many of our member industry’s policies and beliefs regarding diversity and inclusivity.”
The tight spot in which Bryant found himself came courtesy of a Republican super majority in the House and the party’s tightened grip on the Senate after the November 2015 elections.
A veto last week got Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal out of a squeeze his Legislature put him in by passing a bill similar to Mississippi’s. But unlike Bryant, Deal is said to have no political aspirations after his final term expires in 2018.
Businesses speaking out against HB 1523 employ massive numbers of people in the state.
Toyota, for instance, has a workforce of about 2,000 people at its Mississippi plant in Blue Springs. Nissan employs nearly 6,000 people at its Canton manufacturing plant, Ingalls Shipbuilding about 12,000 workers at its Gulfport yards. MGM Resorts employs hundreds of people at its Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi.
The MEC said in a statement Saturday from Blake Wilson, the organization’s CEO, that HB 1523 conflicts with the policies of the MEC’s business members by limiting diversity and inclusion.
“As the State Chamber of Commerce for a state that has proven its hospitable and business-friendly approach, MEC opposes efforts that would intentionally or unintentionally prevent Mississippi businesses from implementing and enforcing non-discrimination policies or that would limit diversity and inclusion impacting their customers and employees,” said the MEC, which has 11,000 members from 1,100 member businesses.
“HB 1523 conflicts with this policy,” the State Chamber said.
Nissan was the first major Mississippi jobs provider to take a stand against the so-called “Freedom of Conscience” bill.
Nissan says it is especially concerned that the legislation will allow discrimination against its workers in Mississippi.
In a statement from the Japanese automaker’s North American headquarters in Franklin, Tenn., the company said: “Nissan is committed to providing our employees with an inclusive workplace environment that supports diversity. It is Nissan’s policy to prohibit discrimination of any type, and we oppose any legislation that would allow discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.”
MGM Resorts said it can’t support the “Freedom of Conscience” bill and fears not only its business will be hurt but businesses across the state as well. ” We respect the diversity of our employees, guests and people in our communities. Laws that permit businesses to decline to provide services to individuals because of this diversity result in decreased tourism and hurt the local economy,” MGM Resorts said.
Toyota did not specifically mention the legislation, but said it “does not condone discrimination in any form and believes that inclusive treatment of all people is good for the workplace, marketplace and society as a whole. In our experience, the best ideas come when everyone is equally engaged and valued.”
The opposition of the state’s businesses has developed far slower than did opposition to similar legislation last month in Georgia. Gov. Deal’s veto last week followed high-profile opposition from Coco-Cola, Delta Airlines and film production companies such as Disney and Marvel.
HB 1523, with its attention to wedding service providers, has been interpreted to be narrowly written and limited in the types of businesses it protects. The ACLU of Mississippi disagrees, however. It says the new law will free all types of businesses to discriminate. Its provisions will allow any business to refuse service to same sex-couples or anyone else based on religious faith or moral convictions, the ACLU Mississippi said.
Opponents during the March 30 Senate vote failed in an attempt to amend the bill to require court clerks and businesses that intend to refuse service to a category of people to post a sign in a visible place stating this.
House Speaker Philip Gunn and seven co-sponsors of HB 1523, dubbed the bill the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act.” It sailed through the House on an 80-39 vote.
Gunn said he wrote the bill in response to the brief jailing of Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the Supreme Court ruled such marriages legal. HB 1523 would allow clerks and other staff to refuse to sign marriage licenses based on their religious beliefs or moral convictions. The bill specifies clerks and staffers must find someone in the office willing to sign the license, but it leaves uncertain how a same-sex marriage could be made official if all employees in a clerk’s office declined to issue a license.
Sen. Jenifer Banning, a newly elected Republican from Philadelphia who presented the bill in the Senate debate, assured questioners a solution was available. She said during debate that a court clerk who refuses to issue a license to a same-sex couple must either find a deputy willing to issue the license or hire someone to do so.
If it is too much of an imposition to hire an extra staffer who is willing to issue the licenses, the clerk should reconsider staying in the post, said Banning, a lawyer.
Questioners said they see nothing in the bill that would force a clerk to do this.
BEFORE YOU GO…
… we’d like to ask for your support. More people are reading the Mississippi Business Journal than ever before, but advertising revenues for all conventional media are falling fast. Unlike many, we do not use a pay wall, because we want to continue providing Mississippi’s most comprehensive business news each and every day. But that takes time, money and hard work. We do it because it is important to us … and equally important to you, if you value the flow of trustworthy news and information which have always kept America strong and free for more than 200 years.
If those who read our content will help fund it, we can continue to bring you the very best in news and information. Please consider joining us as a valued member, or if you prefer, make a one-time contribution.Click for more info