By Rachel Blevins
Mississippi became the latest state to enact what some officials branded as a “religious freedom law” last week, when Gov. Phil Bryant signed the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” into law.
House Bill 1523 states it was created “to provide certain protections regarding a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction for persons, religious organizations and private associations.”
The new law allows individuals or businesses claiming a religious conviction to deny service to, decline to hire, and terminate individuals who (a) do not believe marriage is the union of one man and one woman, (b) engage in premarital sex or (c) do not identify with the gender to which they were born.
In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union claimed that rather than protecting religious freedom, the law sanctions discrimination.
“The law, which is set to go into effect in July, sanctions discrimination by individuals, businesses, religiously-affiliated organizations—including hospitals, schools, shelters and others—against LGBT people, single mothers, and vulnerable young people in Mississippi,” the statement read. “While no other state has passed a law like this, Mississippi also has the dubious distinction of being the first state to codify discrimination based on a religious belief or moral conviction that members of the LGBTQ community do not matter.”
The premise behind the law is also being criticized by activists in Texas such as Chuck Smith, the CEO of Equality Texas, who called the bill troubling and noted that while Texas saw a series of similar bills proposed in 2015, none of them were passed.
“Religious freedom is a good thing,” Smith said. “It is a fundamental principle of this country, and I think [this law] is an attempt to bait and switch and confuse people. This isn’t really about religious freedom. It’s about using religion as an excuse to discriminate.”
Dan Quinn, communications director of the Texas Freedom Network, said he believes the act passed in Mississippi and similar acts in other states attempt to change the definition of religious freedom.
“Religious freedom is one of our most fundamental rights as Americans,” Quinn said. “But this bill and others like it represent an attempt to radically redefine religious freedom to somehow mean the right to use religion as a weapon to discriminate against and harm others, to pick and choose which laws one will obey, and to impose one’s religious beliefs on others.”
Smith noted that one of the reasons Texas has yet to pass a similar law is because the state passed its own “religious freedom” act in 1999. He said the law in Texas was different because it protected religious liberty only if it did not infringe upon an individual’s civil rights.
“We are fortunate in Texas that we passed a religious freedom restoration act more than 15 years ago, back when the laws really were dealing with religious freedom,” Smith said.
It is important to differentiate between religious freedom and religious liberty, Smith said, noting that the 1999 Texas “religious freedom law” in 1999 dealt with ensuring the government did not infringe upon an individual’s religious liberties. In contrast, he said current bills like the one passed in Mississippi are rooted in pitting citizens against one another.
“It’s gutting decades of civil rights advancements,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, this is targeting gay and transgender people, but it’s gutting civil rights protections for all kinds of people who have been the victims of disparate treatment.”
Quinn said he would not be surprised to see similar acts proposed in Texas in the next year. If passed, the state could see a backlash from businesses that disagree with the law’s provisions, which recently happened in Indiana, he said.
“We’re seeing the same backlash in North Carolina now,” Quinn said. “These laws make a state look intolerant and unwelcoming, and that reputation, in turn, makes it harder for states to attract companies, convention business and tourists that help keep an economy healthy.”