Mississippi Enacting Dozens of New Laws Tuesday

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — New Mississippi laws provide pay raises for teachers, require closer monitoring for concussions in school sports and attempt to limit the cost of obtaining public records.

Dozens of new laws take effect Tuesday, including a comprehensive measure designed to make the criminal justice system more efficient and less expensive.

One new law bans abortions at 20 weeks, the midpoint of a full-term pregnancy. There are exceptions for severe fetal abnormality or if the woman faces death or permanent injury because of the pregnancy. The 20-week ban won't affect the state's only abortion clinic, which says it stops at 16 weeks. State Health Department statistics show abortions after 20 weeks are rare.

Another new law, the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, adds "In God We Trust" to the state seal and says government can't put a substantial burden on religious practices — a measure that has already sparked protests from opponents who believe it could allow state-sanctioned discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday demonstrates that Mississippi is correct setting its own law that mirrors the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority in a 5-4 ruling, said forcing companies to pay for types of contraception to which they object violates the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

"Mississippi's RFRA statute, which takes effect July 1, is nearly identical to the federal law, and I hope the court's opinion proves to detractors of Mississippi's law that claims of discrimination are baseless," Bryant said in a statement praising the ruling.

Mississippi becomes the 19th state to enact its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Mississippi had the second-lowest teacher pay in the nation in 2013 at $41,994. The pay raise law gives a $1,500 increase during the budget year that starts Tuesday and a $1,000 increase in the budget year that starts July 1, 2015. Merit pay raises become available in the 2016-17 school year for teachers in districts with high academic performance.

A welfare drug-testing law that was supposed to take effect Tuesday has been delayed. It says who applies for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families will have to answer a questionnaire, and if the answers show the possibility of substance abuse, the person will have to take a drug test. Anyone testing positive would have to receive treatment to receive cash assistance. If the person tests positive for drugs after receiving treatment, the assistance would end.

The state Department of Human Services last week agreed to a request by the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the Mississippi Center for Justice to delay implementation of the drug-testing law, to allow for a period of public comment required by state administrative procedures. DHS will hold a July 22 hearing in Jackson to gather more comments, and the agency is not yet saying when the law will be in effect.

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