Gov. Phil Bryant, in signing HB 1523, has cemented his legacy.
He stands squarely on the wrong side of history with the bigoted governors of Mississippi's past, firm in his determination to uphold the "freedom" of his perceived constituency to act publicly upon their biases and discomfort instead of showing guts and leadership by protecting the lawfully held civil rights of a minority in his state.
And he has locked arms with the forces of fear, judgment and isolationism that have driven Mississippi's "best and brightest" from the state in search of more welcoming places that champion mutual respect, support self-expression and encourage understanding.
Bryant's decision is wrong. It's bad for people, and it's bad for business.
First, let's be brutally clear about what the "Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act" does: It codifies protections for citizens (let's call them "first-class citizens") who desire to discriminate against certain other citizens (call them "second-class citizens") because the first-class citizens hold a "belief or conviction" that the second-class citizen (a) is lawfully married to the wrong person, (b) is lawfully having sex with the wrong person or (c) doesn't identify appropriately with their "immutable biological sex" they were noted to have "at the time of birth."
The act allows government workers to refuse to fulfill their sworn duty to serve American citizens in this state because that worker feels uncomfortable doing so based on a personal opinion of the citizen he or she is asked to serve.
Likewise, people who provide an accommodation through a business that is open to the public will be able to do the same thing—deny that accommodation because they're uncomfortable with the individual customer in question.
We've been down this road before—in 1963, President Kennedy called for legislation "giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments," a goal realized in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Despite white people's "strongly held convictions" that people of color shouldn't be served in their stores and restaurants, acting on such "convictions" was determined to be unlawful and unconstitutional.
Today, most people would rightly say that not serving or helping someone because of their race or ethnicity or gender—or who they love—is un-American. (Those who would disagree are, hopefully, offering us a last hurrah in their lost cause this political season.)
In today's economy, the most highly sought workers can choose where to live, and the work follows them. Austin, Portland, Denver, Miami, New York, Atlanta and many other cities that promote diversity, inclusion and self-expression are thriving—while Phil Bryant presides over the slowest-growing state economy in the union.
He's been warned. On the same day he signed the bill, Paypal announced that it was cancelling a planned expansion in North Carolina due to a similar law. National corporations, organizations and people have lined up to castigate North Carolina's GOP for its bigotry.
The same national shaming and overall business morass that North Carolina is facing is in Mississippi's immediate future. Now, it will be even tougher to entice top businesses and a modern workforce to the Magnolia State.
The day before Bryant signed the bill, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association recommended that he veto it. The MISSISSIPPI MANUFACTURERS ASSOCIATION. While passage of this law may not slow the flow of cash the MMA sends to the mostly-GOP politicians that it bankrolls, the fact that it felt the need to come out against this bill should signal to Bryant and ilk that this is really bad for business.
Local employers Nissan and Toyota both came out against the law, as did Tyson Foods. The Mississippi Economic Council recommended against it, as did global brands such as GE and Levi-Strauss.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson issued a long statement after Bryant announced he'd signed the bill warning about what is likely to happen as a result of it. "The effect of signing this bill could be far-reaching and gravely damaging to our state," Thompson wrote.
"Industries that are considering bringing jobs to our state and talented individuals considering bringing their skills to our state could decide to turn their backs on Mississippi just as the Governor and State Legislature have turned their backs on our own citizens and neighbors. Much needed federal funding for things like transportation, infrastructure, and agriculture might be jeopardized now that this ill-advised and, indeed, discriminatory bill has been signed into law in Mississippi."
So what's the way forward? We need to hold Mississippi's GOP leadership accountable. House Speaker Philip Gunn, principal author of the bill, needs to be defeated in future elections. Time to send him to the private sector.
While Gov. Bryant has shown little true acumen for political office outside of his lackluster results in the governor's mansion over two terms, if he sets his sights on a U.S. Senate seat or similar, a coalition of business leaders and people dedicated to personal liberty and a strong Mississippi economy—regardless of party—need to rally to his defeat.
Until this law is struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court or a similar mechanism, those of us who feel viscerally how wrong it is can work together. I believe we can lift up the existing "If You're Buying, We're Selling" campaign to make it clear to people who have marriages or loving relationships that are defined outside the scope of this legislation that they can find services and businesses where they feel safe and accepted. The Jackson Free Press will work to help with that in the coming weeks and months.
Businesses must work together with organizations and individuals to express our full support for the American ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We can't let the fearful and intolerant stop progress and codify intolerance.
The last thing that we can accept in Mississippi is the loss of more young, creative minds who represent a bright future for a beautiful state with a troubled past. It's time to roll up our sleeves and work hard to let the world know that there's more to the Hospitality State than its inhospitable elected officials. If you're buying, we're selling.
Todd Stauffer is the president and publisher of the Jackson Free Press.