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Controversial religious freedom bill not dead yet



JACKSON — Mississippi House members want to study a much-disputed religious practices bill, keeping it alive for possible further action.

The House passed Senate Bill 2681 by an 80-37 vote yesterday after it had been amended to call for a study panel of the combined House and Senate Judiciary committees. An amendment that inserts the phrase “In God We Trust” into the state seal passed intact.

House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson says the idea is to work toward an agreeable bill by the end of the 2014 Legislature.

“We need a well-reasoned bill that protects our religious freedom,” Gipson said.

Gipson resorted to the study committee after supporters couldn’t guarantee a majority vote for the bill yesterday.

“This is not going to become law,” he said. “This is an amendment to keep the bill alive.”

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, endorsed the call for more study.

“We have had attorneys look at this bill, and they have differing views as to the legal impact of this bill,” he said in a statement. “We have been diligently working to analyze all the concerns with this bill but simply have not had enough time to thoroughly scrutinize all the concerns that seem to surround this bill given that we only received it a short time ago.”

Pressure has been building on Mississippi lawmakers since the original bill passed the Mississippi Senate on Jan. 31. It was similar to a measure that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed last week. Critics said the Arizona measure could lead to discrimination against gay people and other groups by, for example, allowing a baker to refuse to make a cake for a same-sex couple.

Gipson’s committee amended the Senate bill to remove sections that covered private businesses but said it was also important to protect religion.

“We don’t need to discriminate against anybody, but we certainly don’t need to discriminate against our religious people in our first freedom,” he said.

Gipson’s proposal said government cannot put a substantial burden on the practice of religion without a compelling reason. It said a person whose religious practice has been, or is likely to be, substantially burdened may cite that violation in either suing others or as a defense against a lawsuit.

Critics said the Mississippi bill was still vaguely worded and subject to broad interpretation, and should be killed rather than tweaked.

“The ACLU of Mississippi remains concerned that the status of SB 2681 continues to open the door to discrimination against any group based on religious objections. The study does no more than keep this potential license to discriminate alive,” Jennifer A. Riley-Collins, executive director of the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement after yesterday’s vote.

Mississippi’s Southern Baptists have urged lawmakers to enact the bill. But yesterday, a letter was circulated from the head of the Mississippi’s largest historically black Baptist group urging rejection.

Similar religious-freedom 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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