JACKSON, Miss. (UPI) — Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant on Tuesday acted boldly and signed a vexed bill that aims to protect deeply-held beliefs of his state’s faithful — a law similar to those passed, and immediately recalled and adjusted, by a couple states last year.
House Bill 1523, known as the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, was signed by Bryant Tuesday morning after making its way through both Mississippi chambers in recent weeks — the House on Feb. 19 and the Senate on March 30.
The law aims to shield people, religious organizations and other entities for acting in a manner consistent with their faith-based convictions without facing potential legal ramifications.
“I am signing H.B. 1523 into law to protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions … from discriminatory actions by state government or its political subdivisions,” Bryant wrote in a statement Tuesday. “This bill merely reinforces the rights which currently exist to the exercise of religious freedom as stated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
Advocates contend the law doesn’t force the religious to act against their principles, while critics say H.B. 1523 gives Mississippi faithful legal license to practice discrimination.
Last week, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal followed through on a veto promise to reject a similar bill.
Religious freedom bills similar to Mississippi’s were passed by lawmakers in Indiana and Arkansas a year ago. Met with substantial criticism upon the bills’ passage, the leaders of both states acted quickly to try and stem the avalanche of opposition. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson changed his state’s bill to reflect the federal law on religious freedoms — and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence allowed for revisions out of concerns of what was best for his state.
In Mississippi, opponents called for Bryant to veto the bill. The governor, however, resisted those calls, signed the law and emphatically said it does not permit legal discrimination.
“This bill does not create one action against any class or group of people. It doesn’t create a new action or a new defense of an action against those people,” Byrant told a Mississippi radio station Tuesday.
The first-term Republican governor said the Mississippi bill specifically protects religious beliefs “in matters of marriage” — a specific stipulation the governor feels makes it very difficult to use for purposes of discrimination.
The bill states that services can legally be denied in the “celebration or recognition of any marriage, based upon or in a manner consistent with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.”
Critics, though, say more specific language doesn’t necessarily make the law abuse-proof. For example, they argue, the language only means businesses and government offices could still discriminate against gay couples in matters not related to marriage.
“Bryant adds his name to list of disgraced Southern governors by signing HB1523. His ignorance will only hurt Mississippians,” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin tweeted.
“Bryant refused to meet with LGBT people and listen to business leaders. Now his state will suffer because of his failure of leadership,” he added.
Reaction to Bryant’s signing the bill Tuesday, perhaps as expected, was mixed.
“We applaud Governor Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, and House Speaker Philip Gunn, for standing up for the fundamental freedoms of the people they represent,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said.” No person should be punished by the government with crippling fines, or face disqualification for simply believing what President Obama believed just a few years ago, that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.”
“This is a sad day for the state of Mississippi,” state American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Jennifer Riley-Collins said. “Thousands of Mississippians … can now be turned away from businesses, refused marriage licenses, or denied housing, essential services and needed care based on who they are.
“This bill … will not protect anyone’s religious liberty.”
Ten other states are considering similar legislation to Mississippi’s.
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