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Miss. Religion Bill Draws Debate on Discrimination

by Emily Wagster Pettus
Thursday Mar 6, 2014
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A gay-rights group is asking Mississippi legislators to specify that a religious-practices bill won’t open the way for discrimination if it becomes law.

A lobbying group for the Mississippi Baptist Convention, on the other hand, is urging lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 2681, titled the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Jimmy Porter, director of the Mississippi Baptists’ Christian Action Commission, says in an email to legislators Wednesday that media pundits, the American Civil Liberties Union and gay lobbying groups "have declared this bill as discriminatory and hateful." Porter said that’s not true. Rather, he said it would let people use their religious convictions as a defense in court cases.

Porter, who is white, cited instances of violence or discrimination used against black people.

"When I hear someone speak of being discriminated against who has never been told to go to the back of the bus, who has never seen a loved one hanging from a tree by a rope, who has never been served a plate lunch from the back door of a restaurant, who has never been denied lodging in a hotel, who has had to drink from a fountain or use a restroom with a posted ’Colored Only’ sign, who has never been denied access to the community swimming pool, all due to the God-given color of their skin, desecrate the word when it comes out of their mouth," Porter wrote.

Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights group, is asking Mississippi legislators to change the bill to specify it won’t undercut the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

"While we believe that existing statutes and case law are sufficient to address the protection of religious freedom, if the legislature moves forward on this bill, they have a simple solution for their actions to match their rhetoric," Human Rights Campaign’s state legislative director, Sarah Warbelow, said in a news release Wednesday. "To ensure LGBT people are not targeted for discrimination, we call on legislators to adopt language that explicitly preserves civil rights protections in any effort to protect religious freedom."

The bill -- which also would add "In God We Trust" to the state seal -- awaits consideration in the Mississippi House in coming days. Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said Wednesday that he’s not sure what day it will come up.

Gipson, a Baptist minister, said he sees no need to change the bill as requested by Human Rights Campaign.

"We’ve got a good bill," Gipson said, noting that it’s similar to "mainstream" religious-freedom laws already enacted in 18 other states.

The original version of the bill, which passed the Mississippi Senate on Jan. 31, was similar to a measure that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed last week. Critics said the Arizona measure could lead to discrimination against gay people and other groups by, for example, allowing a baker to refuse service make a cake for a same-sex couple.

Gipson’s committee on Tuesday narrowed the Mississippi bill to say state and local government cannot put a substantial burden on religious practices.

When the Mississippi Senate debated and passed the bill 48-0, there was no mention of whether the measure would allow discrimination against gay people or other groups. Rather, the debate focused on whether there’s a need for a state law to spell out the freedom to practice religion that’s already guaranteed.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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