By TED CARTER
The 2,100-member Mississippi Manufacturers Association late Monday joined the Mississippi Economic Council in denouncing a so-called religious freedom bill that has caused an uproar statewide since the Legislature passed it last week.
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.
The high-octane controversy comes from a belief by supporters that religious faith has been under attack nationally since last summer’s Supreme Court ruling upholding same-sex marriage. The best defense, supporters say, is House Bill 1523, a measure that lets court clerks and businesses invoke religious faith and moral convictions to refuse service to gay people and others.
As opposition grew Monday afternoon, Gov. Phil Bryant found himself stuck between hugely disappointing Mississippi’s business leaders 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. ” MMA fears that future economic development opportunities will be jeopardized if HB 1523 is signed into law.”
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 has found himself comes 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.
HB 1523 got a green light to Bryant Friday after the House concurred with a version the Senate approved Wednesday night.
Toyota employs about 2,000 people at its Mississippi plant in Blue Springs. MGM Resorts owns the 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, employer of nearly 6,000 people at its Canton manufacturing plant, was the first major Mississippi jobs provider to take a stand against the so-called “Freedom of Conscience” bill that landed on the governor’s desk after winning approval in both houses of the Legislature by large margins.
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.”
Though a cheerleader for a “religious liberty” bill in 2014. Bryant has not yet indicated whether he will sign HB 1523. He will review it, said Bryant spokesman Clay Chandler in a recent email.
The legislation would have gone straight on to Bryant had the Senate not agreed to an amendment from Judiciary A Committee Chair Sean Tindell. The amendment reinstated a sovereign immunity provision that would prevent churches, faith groups, businesses and others from suing the state for failing to provide the protections specified in the bill.
The opposition of the state’s businesses has developed far slower than did opposition to similar legislation last month in Georgia. Gov. Nathan Deal’s veto last week followed high-profile opposition from Coco-Cola, Delta Airlines and film production companies such as Disney and Marvel.
Wilson and the MEC voiced concerns in 2014 during debate over the bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gay people for religious reasons. That legislation eventually was reworked to mirror the federal “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” Congress enacted in 1993. The federal and now Mississippi laws prevent government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion.
The 2016 bill, with its attention to wedding service providers, seems more narrow than the one two years ago, according to Wilson.
“While it seems that the current proposed bill does not appear to have the broad application on business operations that the 2014 bill had, we currently are consulting with counsel to confirm,” Wilson said in the email.
Some interpretations of HB 1523 have described it as narrowly written and limited in the businesses and groups to which it would apply. The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi said its conclusion is that while the legislation specifically mentions wedding-service providers, its provisions would allow any business to refuse service to same sex-couples or anyone else based on religious faith or moral convictions.
Just ahead of Wednesday night’s vote, senators by a wide margin rejected an amendment that would require court clerks and businesses that intend to refuse service to a category of people must post a sign in a visible place stating this.
House Bill 1523, dubbed the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” by House Speaker Philip Gunn and its seven co-sponsors, passed the Senate Judiciary A Committee last week after sailing through the House on an 80-39 vote.
Gunn has 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, 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.
Meanwhile, Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman said it values religious freedom but opposes legislation that allows discrimination. “Our core values call on us to be respectful of each other and our policies prohibit unlawful harassment and discrimination in the workplace involving race, religion, color, age, national origin, veteran status, disability, genetics information, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other protected status under federal, state, or local law,” Sparkman said.
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