Protesters possible at New York picnic over religious freedom law

John Currence (photo by Brandall Atkinson)

John Currence (photo by Brandall Atkinson)

NEW YORK — Opponents of a Mississippi law could be like ants at the state’s annual New York picnic.

Those protesting the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which takes effect July 1, say it could sanction discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Oxford chef John Currence and others will host a Big Gay Mississippi Welcome Table dinner tomorrow in New York. Another group plans a moment of silence before the Saturday picnic in Central Park.

The measure says government can’t substantially burden religious practices without compelling reasons. Critics fear it could allow business owners who oppose homosexuality to refuse services to gays and lesbians. Supporters say it’s needed to prevent government from putting other priorities ahead of religious freedom, such as zoning laws.

Gov. Phil Bryant said the Mississippi act mirrors a federal law President Bill Clinton signed in 1993 and that 18 other states have enacted since the mid-1990s. The governor also said he does not believe Mississippi’s law will lead to anti-gay discrimination.

State leaders use the week before the picnic to promote Mississippi in New York.

“His trip to New York gives us an opportunity to face him in a larger arena,” said Todd Allen, a Jackson minister who is organizing the moment of silence Saturday.

Currence said his $95-a-plate event at New York’s City Grit supper club, is meant to show many Mississippians support gay and lesbian rights. The chef, who owns six restaurants including City Grocery, won the James Beard Award in 2009 for best southern chef.

“I just hope that we make it very clear to the world — the people who would champion this as a victory against gay marriage and a victory against gay rights — they’re a tiny minority,” he said.

Despite opposition to the law, Currence cooked Thursday for a luncheon hosted by Bryant and the Mississippi Development Authority. Currence said he and Bryant met last month to discuss his concerns, and said Thursday’s lunch wasn’t awkward.

“The lunch was exactly what it needed to be,” he said.

Marlo Dorsey, spokeswoman for economic development agency MDA, said the subject didn’t come up Thursday.

“We wanted him to cook for us,” Dorsey said. “He’s a great chef and he did an amazing job today.”

She said that officials don’t feel the protests have harmed events this week, saying they’ve gotten “extremely positive reviews.”

Seven other chefs will participate with Currence, including Art Smith, who has restaurants in Washington and Chicago and is a former chef for Mississippi native Oprah Winfrey. Proceeds will be donated to the Pride Network at the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University.

Allen said Bryant has turned down invitations to discuss concerns with him and other gay people. He also led a silent protest in downtown Jackson Monday.

“That’s why we’re having a moment of silence,” Allen said. “We are Mississippians. We are your citizens. We are here and you’re ignoring us.”

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