By TED CARTER
Mississippi’s governor and its business leaders have stayed silent as a decisive legislative vote approaches on a bill supporters say protects “freedom of conscience” and opponents say invites businesses and government to discriminate against gays, lesbians and trans-gender people.
House Bill 1523, dubbed the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” by House Speaker Philip Gunn and its seven co-sponsors, is expected to get a vote in the Senate Wednesday. No vote had occurred by mid morning.
The measure passed the Senate Judiciary A 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 sponsors could not say how a same-sex marriage could be made official if all employees in a clerk’s office declined to issue a license.
Gov. Phil Bryant, who eagerly signed a so-called religious freedom bill in 2014 whose provisions mirrored those of a 1993 federal religious freedom law, is not doing any cheerleading on this one, at least publicly.
“As is the case with most legislation, Gov. Bryant will review it if and when it arrives on his desk,” Bryant spokesman Clay Chandler said Monday afternoon when asked whether the governor would sign it.
The Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, says the legislation was still under review by lawyers for the organization Wednesday. Blake Wilson, the MEC’s CEO, said in an email Tuesday night that the lawyers are specifically focused on the range of HB 1523.
Wilson and the MEC voiced concerns in 2014 during debate over a state bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gays or anyone else.
The 2016 bill, with its attention to wedding service providers, does not seem to have the same broadness, 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.
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 anyone based on religious faith or moral convictions
Mississippi’s 2014 measure drew national media attention over several days, just as one passed by Republican majorities in both houses of the Legislature Georgia has this year.
But earlier Monday, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the bill over fears it would lead to widespread discrimination against gays, particularly same-sex couples. The Republican governor’s veto came after a parade of Georgia businesses, including Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, urged him to do so.
Meanwhile, Mississippi’s businesses have stayed out of the debate over HB 1523, at least so far.
Calls Monday to Nissan, Toyota and Viking Range drew no responses by midweek. A spokesman for C Spire, a Ridgeland-based telecommunications provider, said he would seek a response from the company’s executives but has not yet given an answer.
Erik Fleming, a legislative strategist for the ACLU/Mississippi who served 10 years in the state’s Legislature, said his organization thinks the bill has a host of constitutional problems. “Basically, the state is acknowledging – or sanctioning – a religious belief,” he said.
The “government can’t involve itself in marriage,” Fleming said, yet the bill details a range of wedding-related service providers such as photographers, bakers, printers, dress makers, wedding-venue owners and others who could refuse service based on religious beliefs or moral convictions.
Fleming said the bill is flawed in seeming to indicate that one business sector – wedding service providers – can be given the option of refusing services while others can’t. Its refusal-of-service provisions would have to apply to anyone based on religious faith or moral convictions, Fleming said.
The measure also protects businesses and organizations from government retaliation for “establishing sex-specific standards or policies concerning employee or student dress or grooming, or concerning access to restrooms, spas, baths, showers, dressing rooms, locker rooms or other intimate facilities or settings.”
A provision that has received little mention removes barriers between a church and an affiliated tax-exempt 501-C. Under this, the ACLU’s Fleming said, the 501-C could force church beliefs and doctrine on the people it was set up to serve.
“The intent of the bill was that they wanted to give 501-Cs the same protection churches have,” he said.
However, a church-affiliated 501-C that does this can expect to lose any federal grant money it receives, and possibly its federal tax exemption, according to Fleming.
HB 1523’s effective date is July 1. Fleming said that should give the ACLU and other groups time to decide what legal action, if any, to take.
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