Miss. 'License to Discriminate' Bill Heads to Governor

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com April 02 2014 11:17 AM ET

Like Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer weeks ago, Mississippi's governor now must decide whether to sign legislation that would allow businesses and individuals to turn away LGBT customers.

Lawmakers in both chambers of Mississippi's legislature on Tuesday approved the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act that would allow businesses and individuals to deny services to anyone, if serving that person or organization would "substantially burden" the individual's "religious exercise."

After being approved in the the Republican-controlled State House by a vote of 78-43, and in the Republican-controlled State Senate by a vote of 38-14, the bill, also known as S.B. 2681, is now headed to the desk of Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who has not indicated whether he will sign or veto the bill.

The American Civil Liberties union compared the Mississippi legislation to Arizona's recently vetoed SB 1062, which would have allowed businesses and individuals to refuse service to anyone who contradicted a citizen's deeply-held religious belief. 

"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 a statement. "We will continue to fight in state legislatures across the country to ensure that religious freedom remains a shield, not a sword."

The Mississippi bill makes no explicit mention of "sexual orientation," "gender identity," or even "marriage," and neither did Arizona's proposed law. Still, LGBT advocates warn that it will have the effect of legalizing discrimination against the LGBT community. And it could unravel any effort to pass anti-discrimination ordinaces at the local level.

"While there were many efforts to correct the clearly problematic elements of this legislation, the bill still has the effect of making LGBT people strangers to the law," said Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin in a statement Tuesday. "Before Mississippi has had the opportunity to robustly discuss the lived experiences of LGBT people, this bill would hollow out any non-discrimination protections at the local level or possible future state-wide protections. Just as we’ve seen in other states, this bill is bad for business, bad for the state’s reputation, and most of all, bad for Mississippians. Governor Bryant must veto the measure."

If passed, the bill would also modify the state's seal to include the words "In God We Trust," according to the Washington Blade.