Update: In an effort to quell both state and national opposition to the bill, the Mississippi House of Representatives Civil Subcommittee voted Wednesday to remove any provisions deemed as discriminatory against the LGBTQ community.
Gov. Phil Bryant released a non-committal statement Wednesday on the pending Mississippi Senate Bill 2681, also known as the Mississippi “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which was passed unanimously by the Senate in January.
Opposition to the bill see its passage as a backdoor attempt for businesses and entities to legally discriminate against citizens due to religion, race and sexual orientation.
Gov. Bryant told the Clarion-Ledger that he is sure attorneys in the House of Representatives will be looking at the bill and that he is not prepared to say at this point whether the bill has provision in it or not, although he supports putting ‘In God We Trust’ on the state seal, which is part of the bill’s clauses.
Section One of Senate Bill 2681 provides that state action or an action by any person based on state action shall not “burden” a person’s right to exercise religion.
SB 2681 expounds on what it means, stating:
“’Burden’ means any action that directly or indirectly constrains, inhibits, curtails or denies the exercise of religion by any person or compels any action contrary to a person’s exercise of religion. ‘Burden’ includes, but is not limited to, withholding benefits, assessing criminal, civil or administrative penalties or exclusion from governmental programs or access to governmental facilities.”
The bill provides that laws cannot impede an individual’s right to exercise religion, including the ability to act or the refusal to act in a manner that is substantially motivated by one’s sincerely held religious belief.
The bill goes on, stating it will provide appropriate relief to those filing claims, including injunctive relief, declaratory relief, compensatory damages and the recovery of costs and reasonable attorney’s fees.
Senator David Blount said Wednesday morning that he learned the bill, which changes the state’s seal, also includes language that could legalize discrimination.
“I was not aware (nor was any other Senator or interest group or citizen that I have talked to aware) of this intention or possible result when we voted on the bill on January 31,” Sen. Blount said. “I am opposed to discrimination of any kind, including discrimination based on sexual orientation.”
Blount said he spoke with House members about removing language related to legalized discrimination.
Eric Bass, a senior political science major and member of the LGBTQ community, spoke briefly on the bill’s impeding ramifications and said he is shocked such a bill passed 20 Democratic senators.
“The wording itself leads to it being interpreted in many various ways. Someone could challenge the Hattiesburg/Starkville resolutions under it ‘burdening their exercise of religion,’” Bass said. “It’s almost as if it’s so vaguely worded, that anyone could challenge any law under their exercise of religion.”
Bass also points out that the bill could provide that religious beliefs circumvent laws, leaving those with no religious affiliation to seek refuge from a law they disagree with.
Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole acknowledged Wednesday that Democratic senators never read the bill, providing the rationale that they rely on lobbyists, colleagues and the public to determine which bills matter.
He wrote, “Democratic legislators are on the front lines defending public education, health care, public employees, worker rights and a steady onslaught from the ALEC bill mill. This is one that (got) through while our outnumbered and underfunded troops were busy, but there will be a fight in the House now that the alarm has sounded.”
Democratic Senators Russell Jolly and Steve Hale co-sponsored the legislation.
Senators Fillingane and Hudson, co-authors of SB 2681, state they adamantly support the bill and will not change their votes.
Many compare the bill to Arizona’s “anti-gay” bill that passed last week, allowing business owners to deny service to LGBTQ couples. However, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill Wednesday, Feb. 26.
Senate Bill 2681 unanimously passed the Senate Jan. 31, with a vote of 48-0 and four absent.
The bill now resides in the House Judiciary B Committee, where it has not be taken up by subcommittee.
If passed, the bill would go into effect July 1, 2014.
A July 2013 bipartisan poll in Jackson revealed 58 percent of Mississippians under 30 support marriage equality. The poll also indicated 64 percent of Mississippians supported workplace non-discrimination protections to protect LGBTQ employees.