The MIssissippi Senate passed the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” late Wednesday on a 32-17 vote.
House Bill 1523 would allow clerks to deny same-sex marriage licenses to gay couples because of their religious beliefs and not face any repercussions. It would also allow private businesses and faith-based organizations to refuse services based on those same beliefs without retribution.
Sen. Jenifer Branning, R-Philadelphia, presented the bill to the Senate. Debate bill lasted over two hours.
“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 decision legalizing same-sex marriages. “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.”
Opponents of the bill say the bill could allow discrimination of those in the LGBT community and possibly single mothers, but Branning said the bill deals only with same-sex marriage.
The bill states that marriage should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; male (man) or female (woman) refers to an individual’s sex at time of birth.
Branning said the bill would require circuit clerks to have someone on staff to provide same-sex marriage licenses without any delay, but some interpret the language of the bill a different way.
The bill states that the clerk recusing him or herself “shall take all necessary steps to ensure that the authorization and licensing of any legally valid marriage is not impeded or delayed as a result of any recusal.”
Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, asked whether Branning could see how this could be construed as allowing discrimination, which he has experienced as an African-American.
“Can’t you see how some might look at this legislation as being discriminatory?” he asked. “ … This measure we have before us runs the risk of sending the wrong message not to us … but to the greater Mississippi and the larger world.”
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, pointed out that the Senate is “debating matters that don’t exist.”
“There are no state laws prohibiting discrimination by private actors. There’s no state law right now that prohibits anybody concerned from putting up a sign (at their business) that says ‘whites only.’ It violates federal law, but not state law,” Bryan said.
LGBT rights groups spoke out against the bill ahead of the Senate’s debate.
“This legislation moves Mississippi backward, undermining equality for its residents and jeopardizing its ability to attract and retain fair-minded businesses,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin. “Governor Bryant should be paying close attention to the backlash against discrimination in Georgia, where Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a terrible anti-LGBT bill, and in North Carolina, where fair-minded people and the broader business community are calling on state leaders to repudiate and repeal the discriminatory law passed last week.”
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia earlier this week vetoed a bill that would have enabled faith-based organizations to deny services and jobs to LGBT people.
“Religious arguments have also been used in our nation to oppose women’s suffrage, interracial marriage, the acceptance of Asian immigrants, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the abolition of slavery,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in a press release.
The bill will now head back to the House to approve an amendment.