With the potential for consideration before the Mississippi House coming as early as Friday, opponents of proposed "religious freedom" legislation in the state are calling on lawmakers to further amend or flat out oppose the bill, saying it would still lead to discrimination.
Proponents of the bill, Senate Bill 2681 or the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, say it will protect people from laws or polices in the state that would impose on the free exercise of their religion, while opponents say its broad intent will allow discrimination, particularly against LGBT people.
LGBT and civil rights groups — including the Human Rights Campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the Campaign for Southern Equality — say the bill, even as amended by a House committee Tuesday to reduce its broad scope, could create a "license to discriminate" — similar to a bill recently vetoed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.
"This bill still remains pretty problematic," said Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. "Not only are we afraid about discrimination against LGBT people, but also discrimination against race." However, Jake McGraw of the University of Mississippi's William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, said he reads the current version of the bill differently and described it in a recent analysis as going from "malignant to benign" due to the campaign opposing the bill by LGBT and civil rights advocates.
"I think the most problematic language has been taken out of the House version, but let's be clear, it's not the final version." McGraw told BuzzFeed. "This is the result of the activism. In just a few days, activists completely changed the course of this bill."
McGraw warned, though, that the bill could change again as it continues through the House and potentially back to the Senate.
With the legislature having adjourned for the day Thursday a little before 1 p.m., the amended version of the measure is expected to come up for consideration before the full House as early as Friday.
According to the bill's language in the House amendment, the measure would offer a defense in court to anyone who claims a state or local law, policy or "any other action by the state" imposes a "substantial burden" that denies or inhibits the exercise of their religion or compels someone to do something that goes against their religious beliefs.
Additionally, the bill now includes language that prevents an employee of a private business from claiming their religious freedom is protected when disobeying the employer's internal non-discrimination policies, McGraw said.
Unlike the bill seen in Arizona, the amended version of the Mississippi legislation does not explicitly allow a private party — like a shop or restaurant — to defend the refusal of goods and services to another private party based on religious beliefs and focuses more on challenging the government, according to Rho. The version passed unanimously by the state Senate Jan. 31, however, did and as McGraw puts it, "was written in the same vein as the Arizona bill."
The version amended in the House is more in line with the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and similar laws that exist in other states, McGraw said in his analysis. "Courts would likely interpret it as they have in other states, which means that it will not open the door for new forms of discrimination."
There are currently no state protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in public accommodations and employment in Mississippi, so "what we should should be trying to talk about is passing a statewide non-discrimination policy," McGraw said.
Advocates, having exerted their strength to achieve the House amendment, have called on lawmakers to further change the language of the bill to make clear it cannot be used to discriminate.
"While we believe that existing statutes and case law are sufficient to address the protection of religious freedom, if the legislature moves forward on this bill, they have a simple solution for their actions to match their rhetoric," said HRC State Legislative Director Sarah Warbelow in a statement. "To ensure LGBT people are not targeted for discrimination, we call on legislators to adopt language that explicitly preserves civil rights protections in any effort to protect religious freedom."
Rho agreed, saying, "The legislature needs to take a proactive step to make sure religion is not used to harm others. This is not something we should not be fighting about. Discrimination is wrong and the legislation should reflect that."
But supporters of the bill, such as members of Mississippi Baptists' Christian Action Commission, tell lawmakers it has been mischaracterized by LGBT opponents. The group's director, Jimmy Porter, said the bill is not meant to be hateful, but to allow people to use their religious beliefs as a defense in court, the Associated Press reported.
If made law, the bill would also add "In God We Trust" to the state seal.
Similar religious liberty bills have been considered recently in several states, most notably in Arizona, where it was the first to advance to a governor's desk.
Messages were left with the bill's principal author in the Senate, Phillip A. Gandy, seeking comment.