Mississippi Approves Religious Freedom Bill, Governor Signs It Into Law

    The Mississippi bill is the first of many varying "religious freedom" bills introduced in several states this year to advance to a governor since a more expansive bill was vetoed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in February. Update: Gov. Bryant signed the bill April 3.

    After simultaneous debate in both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature Tuesday, state lawmakers approved a religious freedom bill that some have argued could lead to discrimination against LGBT people and others.

    First in the House, the bill passed 79-43, and later, Senate lawmakers approved the bill with a wide majority. [Update — April 3: Gov. Phil Bryant signed the bill into law Thursday, noting in a statement, "I am proud to sign the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act today, which will protect the individual religious freedom of Mississippians of all faiths from government interference."]

    As it is written, Senate Bill 2681 — or the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act — largely mirrors the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other bills passed in 18 states that mirror the federal law, except for language that prevents employees of private businesses from raising legal claims against those employees under the bill. Proponent lawmakers say the bill will protect state citizens' free exercise of religion from government intrusion, while some lawmakers in both chambers questioned whether it would have unintended consequences — including permitting discrimination.

    Several lawmakers questioned the bill's sponsoring lawmakers in both chambers.

    After repeated questions by his colleagues about possible consequences of the bill and what exactly it intends to do, Rep. Joey Hood, sounding frustrated, said, "What we're trying to do, gentlemen, is just protect the religious freedom of Mississippians."

    During the Senate debate, Sen. Derrick Simmons, a Democrat who has been outspoken in his opposition to the legislation, urged his colleagues to vote no, saying, "I urge you not to legalize discrimination in the State of Mississippi."

    "I believe certainly by the way that this bill is drafted that it will allow discrimination in Mississippi," Simmons said. "There is nothing in the proposed legislation that prohibits that."

    In a somewhat heated exchange, Sen. Gary Jackson asked Simmons to point to a section of the bill that would open the door to discrimination. Simmons said he couldn't, but repeated that there's no language in the bill that would prohibit discrimination.

    Another democratic senator, David Blount, said, "There are potentially huge economic effects to passing this bill and the reputation of Mississippi in this country," likely referring to the firestorm of opposition that arose over "religious freedom" legislation vetoed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer Feb. 26.

    But later in the debate, Sen. Phillip Gandy, the principal author of the bill, said the bill has none of the language found in the Arizona bill, and further unlike Arizona, the bill isn't opposed by big business groups in the state. "The Mississippi Economic Council has no problem with this bill, the business community," Gandy said. The MEC previously opposed the bill before recent revisions to its language.

    Since the Mississippi bill was introduced in January, LGBT and civil rights activists have loudly expressed concerns the law could lead to people discriminating against others based on their religious beliefs.

    "Senate Bill 2681 would promote discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals and families in Mississippi," the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, said in a statement Tuesday morning. "As a minister, it's clear that this extreme bill is about legalizing discrimination, not protecting religious freedom. Furthermore the broad implications of this bill could result in discrimination aimed toward many communities."

    The approved bill, the latest of a series of versions over the last three months, emerged from a small committee of House and Senate lawmakers just minutes before a Monday night deadline, surprising some who thought it was stalled for this session.

    Just last month, the House approved a drastically amended version of the bill that removed most of its language and simply called for a study committee on how to proceed with the matter. The Senate, however, rejected the amended version and instead moved for the two chambers to conference on the bill. That conference committee drafted the latest version.

    "Even though the Mississippi legislature removed some of the egregious language from Arizona's infamous SB 1062, we are disappointed that it passed this unnecessary law and ignored the national, public outcry against laws of this nature," said Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel with the ACLU.

    In addition to provisions for religious protections, the bill calls for the addition of "In God We Trust" to the state's seal, a change personally proposed by Gov. Bryant.

    Now that the bill has Bryant's signature, the law takes effect July 1, according to the bill's language.

    Messages were left at Bryant's office seeking comment and exact plans for the bill.