The Mississippi House voted Wednesday to keep alive religious freedom legislation, sending an amended bill, which would create a committee to debate the matter further, to the state Senate.
The drastically amended version of the bill passed by the House replaces most of the bill's language with provisions to establish a study committee to further deliberate on the issue. The move, though, keeps the bill active in this session by sending it back to the Senate — which previously passed a more expansive measure — because Wednesday marked the deadline for the House to consider the bill.
Advocates at the American Civil Liberties Union told BuzzFeed the move was a "procedural maneuver" to keep the bill alive instead of bringing a version that includes the religious protections up for a vote and possibly facing defeat — a move that could be seen as a considerable setback for the legislation, given the chamber's GOP majority.
"The legislators who introduced this amendment said explicitly that they intend to keep this bill alive, and they have found a procedural maneuver that would allow them to do so," said Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU.
As he introduced the amendment to lawmakers on the House floor, Rep. Andy Gipson, a Republican, said, "Give us time to study this issue in more detail. This issue is too important to let die. We can't make a knee-jerk reaction to kill a bill simply because it is controversial."
The amendment strikes away language in the bill, Senate Bill 2681, that aimed to create religious liberty protections in the state — language that critics such as advocates at the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign, and Campaign for Southern Equality said would lead to discrimination against LGBT people.
The new language, in part, reads, "There is hereby established the Religious Freedoms Study Committee to be charged with the responsibility of studying and preparing a report regarding proposed legislation that protects the religious freedoms of the citizens of the State of Mississippi." The committee will comprise the members of the state's House and Senate Judiciary committees. When questioned by his colleagues, Gipson would not say when the committee would meet.
House lawmakers approved the amended bill in a 82-35 vote, sending it back to the Senate where even more changes to its language could take place, especially if the House and Senate confer, advocates said.
"The version that the House approved today will have to be approved by the Senate as well by April 2," Rho said. "However, during this negotiation process, which remains highly unpredictable, there is a likelihood that Mississippi will attempt to pass legislation that could still open the door for using religion as an excuse to discriminate."
Additional advocates at the Campaign for Southern Equality considered Wednesday's developments as a small victory, with the organization's executive director, Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara saying she was "heartened that the state House has replaced the discriminatory sections of SB 2681." However, CSE and its partner organizations will continue to monitor the bill as it moves forward.
"SB 2681 is still alive and we will continue to monitor the bill as the Religious Freedoms Study Committee deliberates and it heads to conference," Beach-Ferrara said. "We will continue to work with people across Mississippi to oppose discriminatory bills and support efforts to ensure the equal treatment of LGBT citizens under the law."
A provision to add "In God We Trust" to the state's seal remains in the bill.
Earlier on Wednesday, more than 300 African-American religious leaders and clergy announced their opposition to the bill in an open letter to Mississippi lawmakers, saying, "We must not allow faith to be used in the service of discrimination."
Previously, proponents of the bill said it would protect people from laws or polices in the state that would impose on the free exercise of their religion. According to the language struck out with Wednesday's vote, the bill would have offered 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.
Opponents rejected that, arguing its broad language would lead to legal discrimination, particularly against LGBT people. The ACLU said that even after the committee amended the bill's language on March 4 to address discrimination concerns, the bill remained "problematic."
"Religious freedom" bills have appeared before several state legislatures this year, but most have failed to move forward, especially in light of the firestorm of controversy over a similar effort in Arizona that led the state's governor, Jan Brewer, to veto the bill.