Discrimination is nothing new in the South and the Mississippi legislature’s passage of HB 1523 continues that shameful legacy. According to the Washington Post:
Mississippi’s House Bill 1523 says, among other things, that public employees, businesses, and social workers cannot be punished for denying services based on the belief that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman. Same goes for people who act on the belief that “sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage” and that gender is determined at birth. It says the government can’t prevent businesses from firing a transgender employee, clerks from refusing to license a same-sex marriage, or adoption agencies from refusing to place a child with a couple who they believe may be having premarital sex.
So called “religious freedom” bills are problematic because they seek to give special rights to select groups at the expense of others. While most recently aimed at the LGBT+ community, these bills are often so broad as to potentially pertain to almost anything. Mississippi’s bill, titled Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, is different because it specifically pertains to “sincerely held religious beliefs” related to marriage and sexuality, specifically that:
(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman;
(b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and
(c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.
Mississippi has completely dispensed with any pretenses regarding what this bill is actually about. It is a blatant attempt to legislate a very specific brand of religious morality. Under the law, employers would be able to fire employees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, landlords could refuse to rent to couples they believe to be having premarital sex, and a host of professionals who provide essential and lifesaving services would be protected from penalty by the state for refusing service to anyone based on one of these “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Here’s a list of hypothetical situations from Protect Thy Neighbor, a group advocating for the separation of church and state, that would be legal under HB 1523:
a government clerk could refuse to issue a marriage license to a couple because one person had been previously divorced;
a taxpayer-funded adoption agency could refuse to place a child with a happy and loving family because the parents lived together before they were married;
a taxpayer-funded organization that provides shelter to kids who have suffered child abuse could turn away a pregnant teenager;
a counseling group practice could refuse to see a mother and her teen who is experiencing severe depression because the woman is unmarried;
a counselor could refuse to help an LGBT person who called a suicide hotline;
a fertility clinic could refuse to treat a veteran and his partner because they are not married;
a car rental agency could refuse to rent a car to a same-sex couple on their honeymoon;and
a corporation could fire a woman for wearing pants
The bill has prompted significant opposition from the LGBT+ community, businesses, and professional organizations. The state Chamber of Commerce along with many of its individual members have released statements saying the bill limits their ability to promote diversity and enforce non-discrimination policies, both for their employees and customers. The state chapter of the National Associate of Social Workers–one of the professions protected by the bill should they choose to deny services based on their religious beliefs–issued a statement noting that any social worker who used the bill to justify discrimination would be in violation of the profession’s code of ethics.
By midday on Tuesday, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant announced he had signed HB 1523 into law.
Just because we live in the South doesn’t mean we can accept discrimination of any people as a matter of course. And while Progressive Alabama is primarily concerned about issues of economic justice and political representation for everyday people–two issues relevant to this bill–there is a more fundamental issue at play. All people should be able to live their lives in such a way that is open, honest, and individually fulfilling without having to fear for their safety, economic security, or social standing. We call on all progressives to stand up for our LGBT+ friends across the South and let them know that we are not this. We are better and we will show it.