Mississippi is one vote and one signature away from enacting what may be the strictest anti-LGBT law yet.
The state Senate passed House Bill 1523, the so-called Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, Wednesday by a vote of 32-17, The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson reports. Thursday morning the Senate took a second vote, sending the bill on to the House for concurrence, as the version passed by the Senate differs slightly from the one adopted by the House in February, reports BuzzFeed. If the House votes to concur, which is expected next week, the bill will go to Gov. Phil Bryant for his signature.
The act states that the government cannot penalize an individual, organization, or business for acting according to the following "sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions": that "marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman"; that "sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage"; and that "male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual's immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth."
The bill would therefore allow businesses to turn away customers or prospective employees by citing such beliefs, without repercussions. It would allow employees of county circuit clerks' offices, which issue marriage licenses in the state, to refuse service to same-sex couples if they object to the marriage on religious grounds, also without repercussions. It could be used to discriminate against single parents and even conceivably allow employers to fire female workers for wearing pants, as it protects employers' and schools' right to maintain "sex-specific standards or policies concerning employee or student dress or grooming."
Sen. Jenifer Branning, a supporter of the bill, argued to her colleagues Wednesday that the measure was designed to protect providers of wedding goods and services who oppose same-sex marriage, and denied that it had broader implications.
"This is presenting a solution to the crossroads we find ourselves in today as a result of Obergefell v. Hodges," Branning said, referring to the Supreme Court's marriage equality decision, according to The Clarion-Ledger. "Ministers, florists, photographers, people along those lines -- this bill would allow them to refuse to provide marriage-related business services without fear of government discrimination." (Ministers, by the way, already have that right under the U.S. Constitution.)
The legislation is similar to the so-called religious freedom bill that failed to become law in Georgia -- where Gov. Nathan Deal announced Monday that he would veto House Bill 757, which would have provided a broad right to discriminate. Critics argue, however, that Mississippi's bill goes even further.
"This is probably the worst religious freedom bill to date," Ben Needham, director of the Human Rights Campaign's Project One America, told BuzzFeed. And HRC Mississippi director Rob Hill told the Associated Press Wednesday that the bill "says to LGBT individuals in Mississippi what they've heard all their lives -- that they're second-class citizens."
Mississippi already had a strong Religious Freedom Restoration Act, considered by some to be the first true "license to discriminate" law, enacted in 2014. "We've made this statement in Mississippi. What's the difference in this bill?" asked Sen. Briggs Hopson during debate in a Senate committee last week, The Clarion-Ledger reports.
Bryant, a Republican who signed the RFRA, has not said if he will sign the new bill, but he appears sympathetic to it. "I think it gives some people as I appreciate it, the right to be able to say, 'That's against my religious beliefs and I don't need to carry out that particular task,'" he said this week, according to Biloxi TV station WLOX.
Bryant has a history of opposing LGBT rights. Last year he argued -- unsuccessfully -- that individual states should be able to ignore the Supreme Court's ruling on marriage equality. He has also defended the state's ban on adoption by same-sex couples.