In 2012, during Hurricane Isaac, the Weather Channel referred to Mississippi as “the land mass between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala.” This dismissal angered many Mississippians, but it also made us aware that the rest of the country thinks Mississippi is so far stuck in the past that they don’t even know our name — just “the land mass between New Orleans and Mobile.”
I grew up here and my family is all over the state. I have close to 75 family members from the Gulfport to Waynesboro. I am a pastor in the emerging Joshua Generation Metropolitan Community Church. MCC is a denomination that was founded almost a half century ago so gay people could have a church of their own. We serve LGBTQ people, straight people, and anyone who wants to worship with us.
Today, we are sad and angry.
We are sad and angry because we know that Mississippians have worked hard to break with its history of segregation, racism, and narrow mindedness. Last Tuesday, Gov. Phil Bryant signed House Bill 1523 into law and took our state back to the days of Jim Crow. It is that past makes people outside our state want us to disappear into some nameless “land mass.”
Much could be said about our state slogan, “The Hospitality State.” We have wonderful traditions. Families gather to feast after church services on Easter, we pull our cars over to show respect when funeral processions pass by, and just about any event is an excuse to gather around a barbecue grill to celebrate. Folks wave as they drive by, and everyone greets you with a smile, whether they know you or not.
But this is a wake-up call for all Mississippians and should be a wake-up call for people across the United States. Marriage equality did not eliminate discrimination against LGBTQ people. It seems to have resurrected a ghost from Mississippi’s past — the ghost of hate and discrimination that has, and continues to haunt our state. Marriage equality is not enough. We need protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in every U.S. state and territory. This ghost must be exorcized. Until then, no one is safe.
Nondiscrimination laws are now strictly state by state and often city by city. North Carolina’s recently enacted law even took away local governments’ right to pass protections for LGBTQ people in their municipalities.
Dozens of states have dealt with so-called religious freedom laws and other anti-LGBT statutes. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Who can object to religious freedom? But “religious freedom” has become a smoke screen for discrimination based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.” That discrimination is not necessarily limited to LGBTQ people — it puts in place or at least lays the groundwork for all kinds of discrimination.
Anti-LGBT bills have been introduced recently in 34 states — in Kansas, North Carolina, and Mississippi, various bills of this type that were approved by the legislature and signed into law by their governors. Legislators in South Dakota, Georgia, and Virginia passed anti-LGBT laws that were, thankfully, vetoed by their governors.
More are being considered, and more will be proposed.
The Mississippi legislation is called the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, but what it really does is provide a license to discriminate against anyone — and then to come up with a rationale based on “sincerely held religious beliefs” to avoid legal action.
Mississippi is in the Bible Belt. We were a slave state and rebelled against the civil rights movement in the 1960s, based partially on “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The Bible says, “Slaves, obey your master.” A whole book of the New Testament, Philemon, is a letter to a slave owner from Paul, urging him to welcome back his slave. Mississippians, like many Christians, used these texts and scurrilously interpreted “the curse of Ham” as curse on all dark-skinned people so they could say slavery was based on religion and that segregation was “a sincerely held religious belief.”
Most Christians in Mississippi and across the country see the error of those beliefs and now look to other scriptures about loving one's neighbor and how Jesus broke the rules around gender, nationality, and class to include everyone.
I am a lesbian and a Christian pastor. I turn to the Bible and look for the major themes about how we are to live our lives.
Even Paul, who wrote the letter about Philemon, the slave, urged Christians to place love above everything and urged Philemon’s owner to treat him like a brother. In the “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, Paul was dealing with a community that was disintegrating into factions. Paul reminded them that nothing matters except love, and first and foremost, love does no harm.
Discrimination, for religious reasons or any other reason, does harm. We must stop this heartless interpretation of religion, and this blatant misuse of freedom of religion.
In other states, the threat of professional sports teams pulling out major events tipped the balance and governors vetoed such harmful bills, but Mississippi has little leverage to work with. One recent study ranked Mississippi last in the nation when it comes to innovation, globalization, and technology. Perhaps it is no wonder that the weather reporter referred to Mississippi as just a “land mass.”
Like the Corinthians who Paul exhorted to make love their first calling, I am not losing hope. I believe that people can make the right choices, but sometimes we need to be persuaded. Add your voice to the protests against this egregious law in Mississippi that allows discrimination. Pay attention to your own state legislators — are they dealing with laws that allow discrimination in the name of religion? Fight back. Stand on human values. Stand on the highest values of any religion — love. Work for nondiscrimination laws that will protect everyone across this country.
BRANDIILYNE MANGUM-DEAR is the pastor of Joshua Generation MCC Church in Hattiesburg, Miss. She is also the founder of the Dandelion Project, an LGBTQ support group, and she was featured in Showtime’s award-winning documentary L-Word MS: Hate the Sin. Brandiilyne is also an advocate and has fought alongside organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD for LGBTQ rights in Mississippi.
Watch footage of Mangum-Dear speaking in front of the Mississippi governor's mansion the day before the bill was signed into law, below.
Posted by Brandiilyne Mangum-Dear on Monday, April 4, 2016